The village headman, a man of about fifty, sat cross-legged in the centre of the room, close to the coals burning in a hearth that was hollowed out of the floor; he was inspecting my violin. Among the possessions brought to this mountain village by the two "city youths"-which was how they saw Luo and me-it was the sole item that exuded an air of foreignness, of civilisation, and therefore aroused suspicion.
One of the peasants came forward with an oil lamp to facilitate identification of the strange object. The headman held the violin upright and peered into the black interior of the body, like an officious customs officer searching for drugs. I noticed three blood spots in his left eye, one large and two small, all the same shade of bright red.
Raising the violin to eye level, he shook it, as though convinced something would drop out of the sound holes. His investigation was so enthusiastic I was afraid the strings would break.
Just about everyone in the village had come to the house on stilts way up on the mountain to witness the arrival of the city youths. Men, women and children swarmed inside the cramped room, clung to the windows, jostled each other by the door. When nothing fell out of my violin, the headman held his nose over the sound holes and sniffed long and hard. Several bristly hairs protruding from his left nostril vibrated gently.
Still no clues.
He ran his calloused fingertips over one string, then another . . . The strange resonance froze the crowd, as if the sound had won some sort of respect.
"It's a toy," said the headman solemnly.
This verdict left us speechless. Luo and I exchanged furtive, anxious glances. Things were not looking good.
One peasant took the "toy" from the headman's hands, drummed with his fists on its back, then passed it to the next man. For a while my violin circulated through the crowd and we-two frail, skinny, exhausted and risible city youths-were ignored. We had been tramping across the mountains all day, and our clothes, faces and hair were streaked with mud. We looked like pathetic little reactionary soldiers from a propaganda film after their capture by a horde of Communist farm workers.
"A stupid toy," a woman commented hoarsely.
"No," the village headman corrected her, "a bourgeois toy."
I felt chilled to the bone despite the fire blazing in the centre of the room.
"A toy from the city," the headman continued, "go on, burn it!"
His command galvanised the crowd. Everyone started talking at once, shouting and reaching out to grab the toy for the privilege of throwing it on the coals.
"Comrade, it's a musical instrument," Luo said as casually as he could, "and my friend here's a fine musician. Truly."
The headman called for the violin and looked it over once more. Then he held it out to me.
"Fogive me, comrade," I said, embarrassed, "but I'm not that good."
I saw Luo giving me a surreptitious wink. Puzzled, I took my violin and set about tuning it.
"What you are about to hear, comrade, is a Mozart sonata," Luo announced, as coolly as before.
I was dumbfounded. Had he gone mad? All music by Mozart or indeed by any other Western composer had been banned years ago. In my sodden shoes my feet turned to ice. I shivered as the cold tightened its grip on me.
"What's a sonata?" the headman asked warily.
"I don't know," I faltered. "It's Western."
"Is it a song?"
"More or less," I replied evasively.
At that instant the glint of the vigilant Communist reappeared in the headman's eyes, and his voice turned hostile.
"What's the name of this song of yours?"
"Well, it's like a song, but actually it's a sonata."
"I'm asking you what it's called!" he snapped, fixing me with his gaze.
Again I was alarmed by the three spots of blood in his left eye.
";Mozart . . . ," I muttered.
"Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao," Luo broke in.
The audacity! But it worked: as if he had heard something miraculous, the headman's menacing look softened. He crinkled up his eyes in a wide, beatific smile.
"Mozart thinks of Mao all the time," he said.
"Indeed, all the time," agreed Luo.
As soon as I had tightened my bow there was a burst of applause, but I was still nervous. However, as I ran my swollen fingers over the strings, Mozart's phrases came flooding back to me like so many faithful friends. The peasants' faces, so grim a moment before, softened under the influence of Mozart's limpid music like parched earth under a shower, and then, in the dancing light of the oil lamp, they blurred into one.
I played for some time. Luo lit a cigarette and smoked quietly, like a man.
This was our first taste of re-education. Luo was eighteen years old, I was seventeen.
a few words about re-education: towards the end of 1968, the Great Helmsman of China's Revolution, Chairman Mao, launched a campaign that would leave the country profoundly altered. The universities were closed and all the "young intellectuals," meaning boys and girls who had graduated from high school, were sent to the countryside to be "re-educated by the poor peasants." (Some years later this unprecedented idea inspired another revolutionary leader in Asia, Cambodian this time, to undertake an even more ambitious and radical plan: he banished the entire population of the capital, old and young alike, "to the countryside.")
The real reason behind Mao Zedong's decision was unclear. Was it a ploy to get rid of the Red Guards, who were slipping out of his grasp? Or was it the fantasy of a great revolutionary dreamer, wishing to create a new generation? No one ever discovered his true motive. At the time, Luo and I often discussed it in secret, like a pair of conspirators. We decided that it all came down to Mao's hatred of intellectuals.
We were not the first to be used as guinea pigs in this grand human experiment, nor would we be the last. It was in early 1971 that we arrived at that village in a lost corner of the mountains, and that I played the violin for the headman. Compared with others we were not too badly off. Millions of young people had gone before us, and millions would follow. But there was a certain irony about our situation, as neither Luo nor I were high school graduates. We had not enjoyed the privilege of studying at an institution for advanced education. When we were sent off to the mountains as young intellectuals we had only had the statutory three years of lower middle school.
It was hard to see how the two of us could possibly qualify as intellectuals, given that the knowledge we had acquired at middle school was precisely nil. Between the ages of twelve and fourteen we had been obliged to wait for the Cultural Revolution to calm down before the school reopened. And when we were finally able to enroll we were in for a bitter disappointment: mathematics had been scrapped from the curriculum, as had physics and chemistry. From then on our lessons were restricted to the basics of industry and agriculture. Decorating the cover of our textbooks would be a picture of a worker with arms as thick as Sylvester Stallone's, wearing a cap and brandishing a huge hammer. Flanking him would be a peasant woman, or rather a Communist in the guise of a peasant woman, wearing a red headscarf (according to the vulgar joke that circulated among us schoolkids she had tied a sanitary towel round her head). For several years it was these textbooks and Mao's "Little Red Book" that constituted our only source of intellectual knowledge. All other books were forbidden.
First we were refused admission to high school, then the role of young intellectuals was foisted on us on account of our parents being labelled "enemies in the people."
My parents were doctors. My father was a lung specialist, and my mother a consultant in parasitic diseases. Both of them worked at the hospital in Chengdu, a city of four million inhabitants. Their crime was that they were "stinking scientific authorities" who enjoyed a modest reputation on a provincial scale, Chengdu being the capital of Szechuan, a province with a population of one hundred million. Far away from Beijing but very close to Tibet.
Compared with my parents, Luo's father, a famous dentist whose name was known all over China, was a real celebrity. One day-this was before the Cultural Revolution-he mentioned to his students that he had fixed Mao Zedong's teeth as well as those of Madame Mao and Jiang Jieshi, who had been president of the Republic prior to the Communist takeover. There were those who, having contemplated Mao's portrait every day for years, had indeed noted that his teeth looked remarkably stained, not to say yellow, but no one said so out loud. And yet here was an eminent dentist stating publicly that the Great Helmsman of the Revolution had been fitted with new teeth, just like that. It was beyond belief, an unpardonable, insane crime, worse than revealing a secret of national security. His crime was all the more grave because he dared to mention the names of Mao and his consort in the same breath as that of the worst scum of the earth: Jiang Jieshi.
For many years Luo's family lived in the apartment next to ours, on the third and top floor of a brick building. He was the fifth son of his father, and the only child of his mother.
I am not exaggerating when I say that Luo was the best friend I ever had. We grew up together, we shared all sorts of experiences, often tough ones. We very rarely quarrelled.
I will never forget the one time we came to blows, or rather the time he hit me. It was in the summer of 1968. He was about fifteen, I had just turned...
"A completely beguiling novel. always giving the reader a sense of being there. Very engaging" ( Independent)
"Wholly delightful, intelligent, funny and unexpected. A remarkable book, offering sheer delight" ( Scotsman)
"A simple story, seductively told, it touches and lifts up the beauty of human experience far beyond the mountains of Western China in which the story is set" ( Times Literary Supplement)
"Highly original and sweetly charming" ( The Times)
"If you read only one novel, choose this one: it's worth a hundred" ( Le Figaro)
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Description du livre Books on Tape, 2002. Audio CD. État : New. book. N° de réf. du libraire 073668848X