Li Rui – Släktgården

Swedish title: Släktgården
Original title: 舊址
Author: 李銳 (Li Rui)
Translator: Göran Malmqvist
Year: 1999

This book was one of many books available as course literature when I studied my first year of Chinese in Sweden. At the time, I chose to read another book (Gao Xingjian‘s One Man’s Bible), but I took the opportunity to buy some of the other books as well, among them Li Rui’s 舊址, which is translated to Swedish as Släktgården, but I haven’t found an English translation either of the book or its title, so an explanation like “the old place” or “the former place” will have to do.

The title refers to the mansion belonging to the Li clan, which has dominated the politics and economy of the city of Yincheng for generations. As times toughen and the winds of revolution ravages China during the first half of the 20th century, the clan struggles to survive, and prevails mostly because of the deft and intelligent family head, Li Naijing. This story isn’t about him alone, it’s about the clan as a whole, how its members fight for survival during the upheavals of the Warlord Era, then the Civil War, then the Cultural Revolution. Even though this is the story of the clan, Li Rui never moves far from the actually people involved, and manages to give an account of history at the same time as he tells the story of a handful of individuals.

This is a feat few authors can pull off in such a successful manner, but that isn’t the only reason why I like this book. The narrative used is chronological only in the wider perspective, individual chapters and sections can differ wildly. Sometimes the author starts telling about what happened during a give episode, only to spend the rest of the chapter explaining why that happened. Other chapters might be flashbacks to previous generations or even glimpses of the future. The narrative twists and finds a curiously winding way through history, always spiralling around the Li clan and the destiny of its members.

Why not more than four snails, one might ask? To start with, the language is interesting, but not extraordinarily good, especially not in the long run. Some sections feel a bit tedious because they are repetitions of what has already been said, but from another perspective. This would have been good if the language was better, but instead, I feel the urge to skip pages and get on with it. Still, on the whole I find this novel entertaining and educating, it makes me want to learn more about Chinese recent history and it makes me want to read more translations made by Göran Malmqvist. Perhaps four snails is too weak a grade for such a good book.

李銳

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