One Man’s Extraordinary Escape from Mao’s Infamous Labour Camps
By Xu Hongci
Translator Erling Hoh
Penguin Random House
Review Lynnaire Johnston
My attempt to read ‘One of the greatest escape stories’ (according to the Mail on Sunday) was not exactly a success. I wish it had been otherwise.
It is, after all, an amazing story. The author, Xu Hongci, was a medical student when he was incarcerated under Mao’s regime and forced to spend years of his youth in some of China’s most brutal labour camps. Three times he tried to escape. And three times he failed. But, determined, he eventually broke free, travelling the length of China, across the Gobi Desert, and into Mongolia.
A promising synopsis, but I struggled while not understanding why. After all, I read widely, often non-fiction (my favourite author is Bill Bryson), and regularly enjoy books that cross cultures. It didn’t make sense that I couldn’t get into Wall.
Eventually, I came up with three possible theories.
Theory one, non-fiction has changed. In the 45 years since this was penned, non-fiction has moved on. Modern non-fiction is easier to read and digest, and is packaged to appeal to a wider number of people, rather than merely the intellectual élite. Perhaps this makes reading earlier writing more difficult and with so much easily available choice, it’s simpler to move on to the next book in the bedside stack.
Theory two, innate cultural racism. I struggled with the Chinese names and couldn’t keep the characters straight. To me, the names were just a jumble of letters, the combination of which didn’t convey any meaning that my brain could retain.
Theory three, the translation was literal rather than literary. Translator Hoh had been intending to write a novel about a prison breakout when he stumbled on the true story of Xu Hongci and decided instead to translate the 572-page autobiography. The original work was an exact account, a diary, and unlikely to be intended as an engrossing saga which would entertain as well as inform.
Whichever theory or combination is right – the truth is that I didn’t finish Wall. Which is not to say it isn’t a good book. It just didn’t work for me. It may, however, work for you.