Sunday, April 21, 2013

REVIEW: The Gunners of Shenyang / Yu Jihui

TITLE: The Gunners of Shenyang
AUTHOR: Yu Jihui
PUBLISHER: Signal 8 Press
AVAILABILITY: Amazon US (paperback pre-order), Amazon UK (paperback pre-order)


The Gunners of Shenyang is the true story of a young man attending university in 1960s China, a time when the nation starved under a totalitarian regime.

The Gunners of Shenyang is very fast-paced for a memoir. Yu writes in a bold, efficient style that carries the drama forward and leave you wanting to know what happens.

First person past.


Every so often, I read a book so brilliant, I feel like my skills as a reviewer are insufficient for expressing just how amazing I found it. The Gunners of Shenyang is one of those books. I’m sure my few paragraphs won’t do the book justice, but I’ll try.

The Gunners of Shenyang is the poignant, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately tragic true story of Yu’s time at university. During the mid-twentieth century, the Chinese government’s attempts to steer the country toward progress and prosperity inadvertently led to devastation. In their attempts to industrialize overnight, they left the agricultural sector unattended, and the result was a famine that lasted years, costing millions of lives. But to even say one was hungry was considered and insult to the government, for it implied that the socialist regime could not provide for its people.

Yu, known as “Soapy,” shares a dorm room with four other young men, all but one of whom are from impoverished backgrounds like his. Because the famine, Soapy was forced to eat whatever he could get his hands on in order to survive, including bean curd dregs. While these dregs filled his stomach, they upset his bowels, leading him to become a serial farter. As it turns out, his “big gun” pales next to those of his roommates, all of whom frequently engage in flatulence for the same reason: they are forced to eat all manner of unsuitable “foods,” their digestive systems rebel. The book’s title refers to this flatulence, which becomes a language of camaraderie. Helpless to change their circumstances, all the students can do is laugh about their “big guns” in a crude college boy fashion.

While Soapy is the central character, the hero of the story is his roommate, Big Zhang, a courageous older student who dares to be nonconformist in a society where one wrong remark can get you sent to a desolate town in the middle of nowhere. Big Zhang is a truly delightful character. Bold, clever, and unabashedly crude, he uses sarcasm to mock and protest the system at the mandatory student political meetings. His brand of comedy is easy to laugh at, but its basis in truth is nothing short of tragic. Throughout the book, he walks a razor’s edge as he butts heads with the students towing the party line.

Yu writes in a crisp, efficient style that brings the characters and setting to life without a wasted word. The story he tells is gripping, revealing, and powerful. Some moments had me cracking up, others had me gripping the book in nervousness, and others still had me on the verge of tears. It’s easy to sense Soapy and Big Zhang’s frustrations. They’re trapped in a society where they’re not only hungry, but can’t even express that hunger without fear of persecution.

For readers unaccustomed to Chinese culture, The Gunners of Shenyang also offers a portrait a society where everyone has a nickname, where heightened emotions are expressed, and where one’s greatest fear is being publicly shamed, or “losing face.” Informative and entertaining, the book paints a vivid portrait of Soapy’s world.

Dystopia is a hot genre right now. Stories of intrepid teenagers fighting evil governments are flying off the shelves so quickly, it’s easy to forget that dystopia isn’t always a fantasy. Yu Jihui’s memoir, The Gunners of Shenyang, tells the story of one young man’s experiences in a real life totalitarian dystopia: China during the Cultural Revolution.

I found a handful of typos (such as the occasional missing quotation mark), but nothing distracting.

This book contains adult language.

[from the back of the book]
Yu Jihui, a former university professor, taught English for more than twenty years in China. Born in Qingdao, Shandong province, he travelled extensively with his family when he was young. In 2001, he migrated to Australia, and he now lives in Melbourne.

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