Aaron Hicklin talks to
award-winning writerJim Crace about his new novel. a lyrical
celebration ofcity life.
All human life is here. In his imaginary city. Jim . Crace has united Eden with Sodom and populated it with lives untouched by God. yet pure in a Dickensian sense: blemished but all the more human for it. He captures the life of the cities we know. jostling and eddying in metaphor-rich rhyming prose. pulsing with colour. sounds. textures and fragrance. The novel is a hymn to open streets and market-places. the thousand urban points at which human contact is made. Though at times cliched and overbearingly sentimental. romanticising the ‘poor‘ and beatifying poverty itself. it is an affecting. accomplished work. refreshing for its unabashed
joy in the spirit ofcommunity.
Arcadia is the city-dweller‘s rural dream. a pastoral myth etched into childhood imaginations like a Constable watercolour. It is also the name. in the novel. of the shopping complex which replaces the Soap Market. an archaic warren which dominates much of the narrative. It is the
with earlier forms of fiction. rather than the social irony novel ofthe 198(ls.‘ Which might explain the mixed reception he has received in Britain. despite winning the Whitbread First Novel Award and The Guardian Fiction Prize for Continent. ‘My books aren‘t conventional. although that‘s not to suggest they aren‘t traditional.‘ says Crace. ‘Novels tend to be autobiographical in nature. to deal with individuals. whereas mine are not in the least autobiographical and are about
They are also political. inspired by real social concerns. Crace does not give his city a name or
f particularly likeable. which was Crace‘s intention and. he says. a mark of honesty. ‘Fiction distorts how sympathetic we should be with characters. There is this Hollywood notion that ifyou‘re attractive. good looking. and Meryl Streep. you‘re therefore virtuous. [wanted a lot ofcharacters in the book who are tarnished. whom it‘s hard for the reader to like. just as it‘s hard to like everybody without reservation in life. The sympathy we can have with them is a non-Catholic sympathy. which presumes that people are born good. not evil, that their lives somehow blemish them.‘
It is this ‘nobody‘s perfect‘ attitude. perhaps.
hub ofCrace‘s community. where marketeers and 7 shoppers conduct their lives. and nowhere else do the metaphors burst into such orchestrated life: ‘The yellow stars were babacos; the Turkish turban was a squash; the pile of redcurrants. clinging fatly to their spindly strings. burst and bled.‘
Crace‘s rich. poetic prose is an inheritance. he 3 says. from generations oforal story-telling. ’You receive a notion not of the private reader and the page. but ofa room full of listeners.‘ he explains. ‘In that respect my books have a lot in common
even a date. but it could be any one of Britain‘s conurbations. ‘Our cities are undergoing massive changes.‘ says Crace. ‘because of market forces : and the power of money. Cities aren‘t shaped over the centuries by their citizens but by whoever I wants to make money out of the space. Once the new buildings are up. however. it‘s not long before someone is at the back door selling newspapers out _ of a suitcase. and the drunks have adopted the cafe. so there is an organic aspect to all cities; life will bubble up. despite the planners‘ best hopes.‘ None of the characters in Arcadia are
which enables Crace to acknowledge that not every critic will find his own work unﬂawed. ‘If people are ill at ease with the folklore aspect of my fiction I accept that as valid criticism.‘ he says. ‘That‘s my style; everything is schematic and purposeful. I‘ve chosen an invented city because I don‘t want a real landscape to get in the way ofthe book‘s purpose. Ifl use abstraction and invention people may think it‘s over-written. but that‘s the risk I take. What it boils down to is finding one‘s own audience.‘
A rcadia is published by Jonathan Cape a! £14. 99.
:— Swan song
Media attention may have transformed Wild Swans lrom a lamily memoir into a literary event but, being one ol the lew books that can carry the hype with grace, it thoroughly deserves its place
in the spotlight. Its author, Jung Chang, .
one ol the lirst Chinese students to be allowed to visit Britain alter Mao’s death, has lived here since her arrival in 1978. Forthe lirst ten years, the memories at her youth were too painlul lor her to consider committing them to print, but alter a visit lrom her mother in 1988, itall spilled out.
The book’s opening sentence will have Anthony Burgess kicking himsell lor lailing to think ol it. ‘At the age ol tilteen, my grandmother became the concubine at a warlord general, the police chiel of a tenuous national government at China.’ From here, Chang’s skillulIy-related lamily history roller-coasts through the social and political history at 20th century China:
l l l
Japan’s occupation ol Manchuria, war, lamine, communist takeover, the terror I at the Cultural Revolution, work camps and worse.
It was during the Cultural Revolution, which occupies several chapters, that Chang’s lather was driven temporarily insane, contributing to his early death in 1975. The period also saw both Chang’s parents incarcerated in work camps. ‘My siblings and I went to their camps to help them, particularly my lather— to do some work, but also to keep him company,’ she says. ‘He was i there three and a hall years and ! experienced nothing but hostility. ! People in the West just can’t imagine l
that kind at ugliness on a personal level. My lather said that without his
lamily he would have died; there was a
river in his camp where a lot ol people committed suicide, many because their lamilies had denounced them.’ Little wonder then that Chang lelt nothing but euphoria when Mao, the architect ol the Cultural Revolution, died in 1976. ‘Mao was like a leudal god, a medieval emperor,’ she says. ‘He certainly caused no lewer deaths than Hitler or Stalin. He was very deceptive - according to him the ultimate act ol serving the people was to be ruthless to their enemies. And, at course, he designated new enemies
every lew years.’ It was in this environment that Chang’s parents sullered for their adherence to the communist principles. ‘I lelt immensely moved by his integrity,’ she says at her lather. ‘Even his stubbornness was a constant moral voice to me.’
Having written the book, she says, ‘I understood my parents much more; my lather, my grandmother-I could see what they had been through, the
dilemmas they laced. I think I
understand human beings more now- in writing l had to record all these agonies and horrors, but also many acts ol generosity, nobility, kindness and bravery came to me; there were
, just so many stories. It made me renew
my optimism and my hope lor human beings because, in those days, even
f with that kind at crushing pressure on 2 people to do evil, people were still
kind, still generous. It’s impossible, really, to crush the spirit.’
i (Keith Davidson)
Wild Swans: Three Daughters at China is published by HarperCollins at
The List 27 March — 9 April 1992 55