There’s a wonderful image at the beginning of John Sinclair’s The Phoenix Song. In 1950, the father of eight-year-old violin prodigy Xiao Magou suffers a stroke and begins to see things. Xiao’s father is a Communist Party official who should still be basking in the first anniversary of Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War. Instead, he sees solid walls where there are open doorways, and his young daughter has to coax him into crossing thresholds. What appears solid to him is not really there.
This is a fair symbol of life in a totalitarian state. What is promoted as reality by the state is a facade of prosperity, progress and revolutionary fervour. It seems as solid as delusions seem to Xiao’s father. Behind it are the unseen, unreported, censored realities. Narrated years later by the adult Xiao, now resident in New Zealand, The Phoenix Song is the story of her life in the first decade of Communist rule in China. It looks at some of these gaps between the facade of propaganda and fearful reality.
Music and politics mesh as Xiao reaches virtuoso status. She lives in a northern town with a substantial Russian minority. This means that flashbacks allow Stalin’s official dictates on music in the Soviet Union to feature as much in the story as Mao’s decrees on music in China. The prose is clear and readable, the descriptions are rich and detailed and (given it follows the arc of history) the storyline is straightforward, for all the deceptions most characters have to practise to survive. In other words, The Phoenix Song makes for a good read over its nearly 400 expansive pages. There are some things on the debit side, though.
As a narrator, Xiao is rather blank and colourless. We never really know how she feels about being made a cultural spy. She sometimes gives historical judgments on events that sound more textbook than personal. There are some grimly funny (albeit historically authentic) sequences, such as a Chinese professor’s denunciation of Debussy’s “bourgeois” music and the burning of the composer’s scores. But there are also moments of History Lite.
When Xiao finds a secret letter from Shostakovich about artistic repression in the USSR, readers are really being given a convenient crash course on the subject. Thus, too, as the action sprints through the Great Leap Forward, the “Hundred Flowers” Movement, the Sino-Soviet Split and the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution, before fading out on a slightly contrived ending.
In The Phoenix Song, you are in the hands of somebody whose narrative drive and grasp of history are impeccable. But the characters themselves could be more developed.
THE PHOENIX SONG, by John Sinclair (VUP, $38).
Nicholas Reid is a writer, poet and historian who blogs about books at Reid’s Reader.
The Listener Book Club is taking a break over summer and will return on February 1.