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K: The Art of Love Paperback – 27 Jan 2011
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Written with a wonderfully intense simplicity - it's tough, uncompromising, direct and tense with strong emotion, but also full of poetry and grace (Andrew Motion)
A beautiful and gripping writer (Tariq Ali Independent)
Readable, clever and spare (Tibor Fischer Erotic Review)
From the Publisher
Hong Ying is an established author, and this book will appeal both to devotees of oriental fiction and those fascinated by the true lives of the Bloomsbury Group.
--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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The Englishman, Julian Bell, is like his eponymous real-life model a product of the Bloomsbury Group which had a set of values quite radically different from what was considered normal at the time. Son of the painter Vanessa Bell (who had an open marriage with a bisexual man) and nephew of Virginia Woolf, he tends to judge everything with the measure of the intellectual cult he grew up in, and initially sneers at the idea that Chinese poets may be producing anything comparable.
The Chinese woman, called Lin Cheng in the novel, but based on the biography of the poet and writer Ling Shuhua, is also associated with an intellectual circle, the New Moon Society. Her contradiction is that she believes in the Daoist "Art of Love", which to her intellectual peers is just a feudal old nonsense. The arrival of the Englishman gives her the opportunity to put this theory into practice.
And practice they do, quite a bit, and it's sensitively and sensuously described in the novel, even in the English translation I read, which is by Nicky Harman and the author's husband Henry Zhao. The eroticism is, of course, a problem for some people in China and in the UK, and so it came to pass that Ling Shuhua's daughter sued the author for libel in Chinese courts for defamation of the dead, and eventually succeeded in having the book banned in mainland China.
It hasn't quite been banned in the UK, but I'm getting the impression that it has been ignored on purpose. I find it quite shocking that I couldn't find a single review of the book. The English edition was published in 2002, so if it has been reviewed, the reviews should be on the web. Probably people perceived it like the subject's nephew, whose name is also Julian Bell, who didn't object to its publication but compared it to "black lace" type genre fiction.
Maybe it takes readers with intercultural sensitivity to appreciate this, but this is definitely not black lace material. K really has something to tell us about what happens when cultures collide. The culture clash proves a bit too much for the English protagonist, who concludes towards the end of the book: "The fanatical love of this Chinese woman, like the violence of the Revolution, and everything else Chinese, was simply too alien for him to comprehend or accept."
In the case of "K" I believe the answer is yes. Although in the initial chapters I was slightly jarred by some of the slightly clumsy and somewhat arbitrary references to Julian's background. However when the love story takes hold Hong Ying comes into her own and manages to combine the factual components of the tale's setting almost seamlessly with the decorous and minute detail used to describe the love affair and landscape in Wuhan. The reader is irresistably drawn into Lin and Julian's affair which Ying infuses with both intense eroticism, and an almost painful sense of urgency and impending tragedy, Lin's desperation for a permanent union matched by Julian's morbid reluctance to relinquish any of his freedom. The blissfulness of the pair's heady winter holiday in Peking is set in perfect contrast to the impossibility of their situation back at the University and produces in the reader as it does in Julian and Lin a longing for a return to those simple and peaceful times.
"K" is also a bitter sweet look at the reality of life in 1930's China,the superstitions and beliefs of the Chinese, the dramatic political backdrop of not only a country but a world on brink of all out war and the complacency and arrogance of the West. The truly tragic ending to the tale could not have been made more so with fictional enhancement.
This a is a beautiful book, written with intensity and sincerity. Told as if it's a fable it is only enhanced by it's basis in fact compunded in the final pages of the book where we are given an epilogue in the form of Lin's poems for Julian.
I have also read more evocative descriptions of China in travel brochures.
That said - it wasn't TERRIBLE. It just wasn't great literature. And erotic?! HAH!
Definitely NOT a serious book to be recommended for literature purpose. The subtitle "The Art of Love" (an ancient Chinese equivalent of Kama Sutra) further implies its catering to obscene taste and fundamentally ruined its credibility towards K, an equally successful female intellectual at that time.
In Hong Ying's foreword of 2002 English edition, she said what she was "trying to express in this novel is the idea that sex and love are inseparable." -- a truly weird confession leads to a disastrous failure of this book, which otherwise could be deeply explored on both main characters, and present the readers with more persuasive accounts of their love affair between east and west in that particular Chinese history period of 1930s.