“O God of Progress, have you degraded and forgot us?”
- Sufjan Stevens
“Do you want to make me hate you?”
- French Teen Idol
Heartbreaking. Inspiring. Moving. One-thousand pages.
Fire from the Sun is the best historical fiction I’ve read in more than a decade, since Aztec, by Gary Jennings. . Extrapolating forward, this means there will only be a handful of books in that genre as good, as memorable, or as important before I die, if I make it into old age. Given the quality of this book, that seems fair.
I remember when Fire from the Sun came out, more than a decade ago. I remember reading this post, and quickly beign intimidated by the number of volumes required (3!, more than $100 at the time) to read the book. So I put it off until the author, John Derbyshire, made the news for something completely different, and saw that Fire from the Sun was available in an affordable and easy-to-carry Kindle edition.
Fire From the Sun begins in south-west China in 1965, the last year of China’s “long 1950s” (1949-1965) and the year before the Cultural Revolution. As I was in tears the last hour of reading the book, it’s not surprising I find the beginning incredibly moving, looking at it again:
New Costumes at the Swimming Pool
We Have Friends All Over the World!
The first time Weilin ever saw foreigners—real foreigners, not just National Minorities or Chinese people from another province—was at the swimming pool in South Lake Park.
The scope of Fire from the Sun is incredible, and incorporates multiple stories and perspectives of the period. If you’ve seen Chinese cinema of the period, the following themes from famous movies are also reflected in Fire from the Sun. 24 City, From Mao to Mozart, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Summer Palace, and Mao’s Last Dancer have clear parallels to the adventures in the book. Non-fiction readers of The Man Who Stayed Behind or I Choose China will recognize the descriptions of Beijing and other towns.
It struck me after finishing Fire from the Sun that the main characters are symbolic of the yellow earth / blue sea debate — though in complex and unexpected ways. In other words, what is the true China: Beijing or Hong Kong? Finishing a work this massive, the first day was spent thinking of the characters and all they went through. With a little more time to think of the book, though, the symbolism behind the story is just as meaningful. But it was the characters that made me cry.
Derbyshire uses the book’s thousand pages to emphasize the patterns behind behavior. This is perhaps most obvious given the two incidents involving different pedophiles, one of which paints the predators in a ghastly light, the other very sympathetically. Additionally, the sees surrounding the Tiananmen Massacre, both involving students being shot and soldiers being burned alive, emphasize how terrible that tragedy was. The same variations on a theme, the same drawing out of the substantial reality under the happenstances, are woven meticulously through the book.
A personal note: my wife is a native Beijinger, and through my marriage I have relatives I will never see because they studied abroad, chose the wrong side, and got shot. I also have relatives who did well under the Chinese Communist Party, and because of specific Communist policies had a much more humane life than they would have otherwise. My wife visited the protest as a child, and older relatives had their education cut short by the Cultural Revolution and were then rusticated. I’m aware that the emotional force of this book for is mediated through those experiences.
I read Fire from the Sun on the Kindle edition.