Here is more evidence that as the world gets smaller, our horizons expand. Lulu Wang was born and raised in Beijing, moved to Holland 15 years ago and wrote her first novel, The Lily Theater, in Dutch.
Now translated into English by Hester Velmans (Doubleday; 434 pages; $25), it is a frankly autobiographical story in which the heroine, Lian, joins the tradition of the wise child. To call her a Mandarin Huck Finn may be a bit of a reach, but it makes the point, which is that sometimes it takes an innocent to see society's hypocrisies.
Lian's targets are as big as Mao portraits in a May Day parade. At age 12, she accompanies her mother to a harsh re-education camp. The time is the late '60s, when the born-again Communists of the Cultural Revolution strive to out-Orwell their Orwellian betters. Lian's mother, a university professor, and father, a physician, are just the sort of professionals to be singled out.
But the yahoos of the movement could not foresee that Lian would get an excellent though surreptitious education in the detention camp. The reason is simple: some of the country's finest scholars are there. Unable to show off her forbidden knowledge in public, Lian retreats to a nearby pond to lecture the frogs. This precocious charmer even persuades the camp director to keep a dog. He does, but only until he needs to convince visiting inspectors that his prisoners are getting enough meat.
Through Lian's bright eyes, China during the Cultural Revolution often seems more deranged than consciously brutal. To mention food, drink or sex is to invite charges of bourgeois decadence. Students are required to master the denunciation article, a form Lian describes as "a slanging match between a couple of fishwives." Villages have names like Communism Is Best Without a Doubt.
Citizens of Liberty Corners, U.S.A., are now fortunate to have an intimate and unexpectedly salty illustration of that old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."