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3:27 am
Sat June 21, 2014

A Former Prisoner Out Of Step With Modern China In 'Night Heron'

Originally published on Sat June 21, 2014 12:29 pm

Adam Brookes' new novel, Night Heron, starts with an act of almost impossible bravery.

A man named Peanut escapes from a prison camp in north-western China. Peanut is a a powerfully-built man — despite his nickname — who witnessed the Cultural Revolution as a small boy, and whose father was an intellectual savaged by the Chinese regime.

Peanut grows up to become a ballistics expert, but joins the protests in Tiananmen Square, which gets him locked up in that prison camp for 20 years. When he breaks out, his revolutionary fervor is no longer academic — and he has a way in mind to poke a mortal hole in the Chinese regime.

Night Heron is the first novel by Brookes, a BBC correspondent formerly based in China. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that Peanut has "been through the mill, as so many middle-aged and elderly people in China have. From the early years of Communism through the Cultural revolution, through to this huge and very disorienting transition to a market economy."


Interview Highlights

On Peanut's experience in contemporary China

Peanut finds himself traduced by these changes, he finds himself unable to find a footing in any aspect of contemporary China. I've met many Chinese people who've had these experiences, whose whole lives have been defined by what happened to them, particularly in the Cultural Revolution and its immediate aftermath, where whole slices of their lives were taken out ... someone I'm particularly close to in China was studying to be an engineer when he said the wrong thing in a Party meeting and spent 22 years sweeping a floor in a factory in northeastern China. Those stories are legion, you know, they abound, they're all over China all the time.

And when [Peanut] comes out, he finds his old friends and his colleagues have become successful academics, they've found their feet in this new China.

On being a student in China in the 1980s, when things began to change

It was extraordinary for us to witness the way in which people were kind of opening up, not just politically in terms of the things that they would say, and the things that they would read, but the way in which people spoke to each other, the way in which they started to conduct intimate relationships in public, the way that they started to change what they wore, the way that they started to listen to Western pop music.

In the summer of 1987, there was a market up in northwest Beijing ... and on this market stall, they began to sell a little bright yellow dress, quite short, which showed the shoulders. And for a while it sat there and nobody bought it. But then, some brave student on one of the campuses bought this yellow dress and began to wear it. And then everybody began to buy it, and it just sort of took off ... which made an extraordinary statement about the way people saw their lives changing and themselves changing.

On whether people of Peanut's generation have traded liberty for prosperity

I'm not sure liberty was ever on the table. The primacy of the Communist Party is still a given in China. It faces all sorts of challenges ... but nothing yet that coalesces into something that could really challenge the rule of the Communist Party.

The Party's central equation, the contract it has with its people, goes something like: we, the Party, will deliver prosperity if you will guarantee our political dominance for the future. The Party is mortgaged to this idea, and I think as long as people continue to believe ... that they can expect their children to see a life that was better than their own, as long as they can access education, access consumer goods, and as long as they have a significant amount of personal space within which they can move, the Party will continue to hold this contract in place.

If any of this falls away ... then I think all bets are off about the future of China.

On his line, "China makes exiles of us all"

I was trying to get across the sense of how, as a Chinese person, a powerful longing to feel a part of your nation and your country and your culture can be confounded by the authoritarian instincts of the state. My character Peanut sought as a young man to serve his country. He sought to become an engineer, he sought to work for the state. He then sought to turn China democratic, he sought to commit himself to political change in his country — and at every stage, he found himself rejected and confounded, and later imprisoned by the state. And the sense of the exiled intellectual is a very powerful archetype in Chinese politics, it leads deeply back into Chinese history and literature. Peanut is my latest incarnation of that tradition of the exiled, frustrated, furious intellectual.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Adam Brookes' new novel "Night Heron" starts with an act of almost impossible bravery. A man named Peanut came from a prison camp in western China - Peanut's a powerfully built man, despite his nickname, who was a small boy during the Cultural Revolution and whose father was an intellectual savaged by the Chinese regime. Peanut becomes a ballistics expert, but joins the protests in Tiananmen Square, which gets him locked up in that prison camp for 20 years. And when he breaks out, his revolutionary fervor is no longer academic. He has a way in mind to poke a mortal hole in the Chinese regime.

"Night Heron" is the first novel by Adam Brookes, a former BBC correspondent who's been based in China and a lot of other places and is now in the United States. He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

ADAM BROOKES: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Did this novel start for you with an offer from a stranger?

BROOKES: It was a Sunday afternoon in Beijing. I was in the BBC Bureau. A man knocked on the door, an elderly gentleman, carrying a little briefcase. And he pulled out of that briefcase two secret documents. Chinese government secret documents. And he tried to make me take them, make me accept them. I told him I couldn't. I wasn't a spy, I wasn't an intelligence officer, I was a journalist. Nothing more than that. But he was persistent. And he tried to get me to introduce him to British intelligence at the British Embassy, as if I would've known how to do that anyway. You know, I wouldn't. I think the whole episode was a test. It was a test to see if I was an intelligence officer just posing as a journalist...

SIMON: Or a trap.

BROOKES: Or maybe even a trap.

SIMON: Yeah.

BROOKES: It was some kind of provocation. In the end, he went away. I never saw him again. But his story sort of stayed with me. And I found myself sort of spinning a life around him. And spinning motives around him. And it turned into, over the years, it turned into the novel "Night Heron."

SIMON: Tell us about Peanut. There's this man who comes out of a - almost a kind of time capsule after 20 years. I wonder for one thing, not if you ever met anyone like Peanut but maybe how many people you met that contribute a little something to this character of Peanut?

BROOKES: Peanut's story is one of a middle-aged man in contemporary China, who has been through the mill, as so many middle-aged and elderly people in China have. From the early years of communism, through the Cultural Revolution, through to this huge and very disorienting transition to a market economy. Peanut finds himself sort of traduced by these changes. He finds himself unable to find a footing in any aspect of contemporary China. I've met many Chinese people who've had these experiences, where whole slices of their lives were taken out, where they were sent to the countryside to labor with the peasants. Perhaps they were sent to a factory to sweep the floor for years and years and years.

SIMON: One of the things Peanut discovers is a lot of people that were on the side with which he identified during the time of Tiananmen Square have gone on to other things in life and wind up becoming, at least in a titular way, a part of the regime.

BROOKES: And Peanut comes out of his - I wanted him to be sort of suspended in time, and, which is why I placed him in a labor camp up there in the desert of northwest China. And when he comes out, he finds his old friends and his colleagues have become successful academics. They found their feet in this new China. They've understood the way that the lines have now fallen in contemporary China. What you can do, what you can't. How you work the system in your favor. So he finds himself not only at sea with regard to the state and surveillance, but also in regard to his personal relationships. He's unable to place himself with the people that he sees around him. And this sense of kind of bewilderment among the older generation in China is one that you encounter very frequently. It's a very significant part of contemporary China.

SIMON: A line that stays with me, few characters say China makes exiles of us all. How do we understand that?

BROOKES: I was trying to get across the sense of how, as a Chinese person, a powerful longing to feel a part of your nation and your country and your culture can be confounded by the authoritarian instincts of the state. My character Peanut sought as a young man to serve his country. He sought to become an engineer. He sought to work for the state. He then sought to turn China Democratic. He sought to commit himself to political change in his country. And at every stage, he found himself rejected and confounded and later imprisoned by the state. And the sense of the exiled intellectual is a very powerful archetype in Chinese politics. It leads deeply back into Chinese history and literature. Peanut is my latest incarnation of that tradition of the exiled, frustrated, furious intellectual.

SIMON: Adam Brookes' first novel "Night Heron." Thanks so much for being with us.

BROOKES: Thank you very much for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.