Colors of the Mountain is a remarkable book. And Da Chen is an equally remarkable man. His memoir reveals a childhood few of us can imagine. Chen grew up in Chairman Mao’s communist China, the descendant of a once-prosperous landlord — a lineage ensuring the author an immediate position as a perceived enemy of the state.
It is a tale of deprivation, hardship, humiliation and fear. It’s also a tale of love, courage, hope and the indomitabile human spirit, a tale brimming with life and wit and inner truths. In sum, it’s one of the most exquisitely human books this reviewer has encountered in some time.
Much the same can be said about the author, as open, warm and witty as his work. Chen has a knack for immediately putting you at ease — the mark of the true creative artist, who’s as interested in his interviewer as he is in talking about himself.
I spoke with Chen by phone from his home in upstate New York. What should have been a 10- or 20-minute interview evolved into an hour-long dialogue about life (his and mine), movies, shared interests and fears, critics, and where the best Chinese restaurants in Florida can be found.
It was a conversation I’ll long treasure — and one that bore the unmistakable stamp of the man who created Colors of the Mountain.
Perhaps the most amazing — and generally unnoticed — thing about Chen’s book is the skillful way its author blends Oriental mysticism and American idiom. The result is a story foreign yet familiar, poetic yet approachable.
“I think that has to do, first of all, with who I am. I see things in humorous ways — something my father taught me. My father is one of the funniest men, and also one of the most artistic persons, I’ve ever known — besides his ambitions, which really got nowhere,” Chen explains.
“Another thing,” he continues, “is that when I first got here, I was 23 years old, and when you’re 23 years old you’re still quite growing. You’re absorbing — in the same way I absorbed Kentucky Fried Chicken. You’re absorbing tremendously, and one of the things that affected me greatly was I started reading books, American books.”
Citing Hemingway and other authors whose works and styles caught his attention, Chen is quick to point out that he was also absorbing American sitcoms: “They had great impact on me. The way they are written, the way they come in and come out [in] every episode — that shaped my mind in a way that is different from the fashion in which Chinese literature is created.”
However Da Chen’s style came about, it’s extremely effective, offering an immediate feel of openness, friendliness — and, above all, an important sense of identification. I mention this to Chen.
“I like that,” he says enthusiastically. “That’s a wonderful compliment! My wife, who is American-born Chinese, always said that, by the way. That’s why that’s an incredible thing to point out. She said, ‘That is what makes your book that wonderful, because you almost seem like a Western writer going there to write a story that you know very well, that comes out in a way that American readers can communicate with you.'”
However, not everyone appreciates this aspect of the book. “Some people really criticized me for that,” Chen admits. “[They] said I could very well change a few names into David and Sherman and it could be an American story. They ask, ‘How could these characters talk like that?’ That’s how it comes out from my memory — and they do talk the same, by the way. The terms are a little different, but the idea is the same. They’re kids, after all, and it’s really quite universal.”
Essentially, detractors find Da Chen — well, not quite “Chinese” enough.
“I suppose they wanted me to use a lot of Chinese phrases,” he muses. “In Chinese, there are these things called four-character phrases. The language is filled with these idioms that have these incredible stories behind them, and some critics feel that I should have all my characters talk in that way … they expected me to do that. [But ordinary] people don’t talk like that. Bookish people talk like that.”
The book expresses little lasting anger or bitterness toward the Communist Party members who tormented the author and his family. It’s another result of Chen’s writing the book in a non-native tongue.
“I am not a terribly revengeful person to begin with, but, yes, English to me is like an instrument. Suddenly I am able to tell a story with music, thanks to English, composing it into music. So you leave out all the sad words, replacing them with sad notes — and sad notes are better in my mind than sad words,” he says. (And his critics damn him for being unpoetic!)
“I was in London giving interviews for the BBC,” the author continues, “and … they asked me to translate these two passages into Chinese, so that I could read them on the radio that they broadcast to Asia, with 60 million Chinese-speaking people listening. I did try, and I didn’t pay much attention, but once I started reading on the show, I actually began to feel my tears begin to flow, because it’s really amazing how these simple words are the words of my memory, the original words of my emotions. Describing these emotions [is] so much sadder, translated into Chinese. It is so much closer — everything is right here. It was pathetic. I couldn’t read on. And I realized I could not have written this book in Chinese at all.
“I didn’t want to write this book in Chinese at all!”
Furthermore, “You really have to have lived it to understand it,” he says. “I mean, the worst horror stories come from the Anne Frank diaries, right? You have to have the insider’s eye in order to see.”
What Chen sees is that the Maoist regime “ruined the whole fabric of a culture — beating people up, trashing things. We don’t know how many arts have been ruined by this, how much was lost.” The author remembers burying family treasures — ancient vases and other artworks — so they wouldn’t be destroyed by the Red Guard, and how, digging them up years later when the worst was over, half of everything was ruined.
“We need to read about these things — in my case, I need to write about them — in order to remember,” Chen explains. “I really want my kids to understand what I went through.”
Certainly, he has accomplished that — and not just for his children. Just as Chen’s book shows concern for more than his personal story by being, ultimately, the story of the destruction of a culture, so it speaks to different people in different ways. He continues to be amazed at the reactions of readers to his characters — at the number of people who ask him whatever happened to this or that person.
“All of a sudden I have friends all over the world,” he marvels. Equally surprising to him have been the responses from people he knows.
“I have friends, childhood friends, who call me and say, ‘You know what? I didn’t know you went through that.’ I have a friend who also studied English with me. He read the book and said, ‘I didn’t know. I thought you were fine!'”
It’s that reality beneath the surface that Chen, with great warmth, humor and generosity, gives us in Colors of the Mountain. Too often, once you’ve read the press clippings in a book’s publicity packet, you know everything the book’s creator is going to say when you interview him. Da Chen is a glorious exception. His is a mind alive with curiosity and the sense of discoveries yet to be made.
“I’ve talked about how I had to climb into a commune’s field library to steal books,” the author relates. “The books there were all soft, because it was flooded, and the roof was leaking for years. And one of my favorite books was a book that had a hole that went all the way through the heart of the book. Some creatures made a nest in there. It was a translated version of a French masterpiece, The Count of Monte Cristo. … I was talking about that in one of the bookstores — some bookstores have the tradition of giving you a book as a present in return for your signing — and the lady was stunned. She said, ‘Oh, I was just about to give you this!’ And it was The Count of Monte Cristo. So now I’m able to read it in English — and figure out what was in the middle!”