Free to take your clothes off

BY PETER WALKER SUMMER OF BETRAYAL by Hong Ying Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
This is a candid, carnal little tale, made distinguished by the terrible events in whose shadow it takes place. "The rape of Peking" was the splash headline of the Independent on June 5, 1989, the morning after the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is in the aftermath of that rape that this novel is set, when frightened students, artists and journalists hid, squabbled, bedded and betrayed one another, while police cars with darkened windows and soldiers "motionless as stone statues ... streaming with sweat" filled the streets of the Chinese capital.

Running through the gunsmoke at Tiananmen, Lin Ying, a poet in her late twenties, takes all night to cross the city to the People's Daily compound where her journalist lover lives, but there finds him in bed with another woman. This second "betrayal" in 24 hours sends her flying off again, but in "The big city suddenly there was not a single branch she could perch on." In the end, she does find refuges of one kind or another - in the bed of a young literary critic; drinking beer and watching Western porn videos, odd as it may sound, with a pair of feminist artists; talking literary theory while fending off a libidinous poet in a deserted Fragrant Altar Park - "Local people didn't dare come out to a park yet."

Given the massive and baleful presence of the state, it is perhaps inevitable that these characters sometimes seem like stick-figures - in search of safety and happiness of course, but nonetheless jerkily animated by scraps of ideology and theory that have blown their way - individualism, post- modernism, feminism, sexual politics.

Against this, the novel is fascinating for its portrait, from within, of a great city and a great culture. We are used to the Chinese prison- camp novel, and the Chinese emigre novel: Summer of Betrayal gives us another world, which you always knew must exist, that of the sophisticated heirs to an immense, half-occluded tradition. Through their eyes, Peking is a city of stone stairways and parks and the classical loot: the iridescence of purely Chinese forms and imagery flashes through the writing.

Yet the city is also as provincial and airless as, say, Prague or Bucharest during the Cold War. These same urban sophisticates are obsessed with the West and with various whiskery notions of the avant garde that have reached China. Lin Ying's version of sexual liberation recalls the endless copulations of an early Kundera hero. This is sex as amnesia and as an infantile form of rebellion: the tyrannical state can endure any number of hammer blows of that variety, you think, as yet another penetration commences.

In a surprising finale, though, Hong Ying surpasses Kundera. Her naked heroine confronts the police who have burst in with their cudgels, and she suddenly becomes not just a girl who wants to have fun but an elemental figure - the solitary against the state. "There is no future for a regime which slaughters its young," said Mitterrand after the Tiananmen massacre. He, however, came from a country where Delacroix's bare-breasted Liberty at the barricades is an image of victory. No such victory is in sight in China, but the heroine of this novel, hustled into a paddy-wagon as dawn breaks, represents something that may be as potent: courage and despair. The novel, published in 1992 in Taiwan, has been widely read in China.