Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa - REAL Teenage Strife!

With the book market being flooded with novels about angsty, twinkly vampires and kids struggling with getting picked on, it's refreshing (though heartbreaking) to find a book like The Girl Who Played Go that makes modern day emo kids look like whiny babies that just need a nap!

Chinese author Shan Sa (real name Yan Ni)
Sa has spent much of her life in France, writing her novels in  French.
Adriana Hunter has done the English translations for a number of Sa's novels.

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa is actually the combination of two stories being told simultaneously (the chapters alternate between the two telling their stories in first person) of a male Japanese soldier and a female Chinese student and "go" player in 1930s Manchuria. Their stories take place just before the start of World War 2 when Japanese forces invaded the Chinese territory of Manchuria. Neither reveal their names til the very end of the story, which I found to be an interesting little quirk in the novel. The back and forth story switches between chapters wasn't as hard to follow as I've found in other novels, and Sa's writing is so poetic I found myself not really minding keeping up with the two individually.

Japanese invasion of Manchuria 1

Japanese Invasion of Manchuria 2 
At the beginning of the story, the anonymous girl leads a pretty ordinary teenage life - she goes to school, finds her parents annoying and controlling, tells secrets to friends, crushes on boys, reads the 18th century Japanese poet Issa, and plays go (a game similar to chess or checkers) in the park. In playing go, she has her greatest outlet. She is unique in that she is the only female in her community that is part of the local professional go players group. She finds peace in the concentration required for the strategy-based game. It gives her a place where she doesn't have to think about war, her sister's unhappy marriage, her bland parents or what will come of her own life with the Japanese invasion. But as often happens in reality, you never know who life is going to throw your way when your world gets turned upside down. With the Japanese invasion comes Chinese rebellion and into go girl's life walk two boys,  Jing and Min, who are leaders in the rebellion. Of course girls are drawn to rebels so go girl develops "a thing" for Min while putting Jing in "the friend zone", which he gets pretty peeved about.

The game of Go

Go patterns can vary

My favorite quote in this novel :

"You see," she (Huong, best friend of go player) says, "a real man is different, not like the boys with mustaches who lurk outside our school. He can guess what you're thinking, anticipate what will make you happy. When you're with a man, you're no longer a girl but a goddess, a sage, an ancient soul who has lived in every era, a wonder that he contemplates with all the intense curiousity of a newborn baby." 

To which go girl's internal thought is:

"Even though Huong has become my best friend, I never quite understand what she is saying. Her convoluted soul is divided between light and darkness, she is both blatant and discreet, and her life is full of mysteries despite everything she confesses to me."

How many of us have known someone like that, right?!

While go girl is working out her conflicted teenage girl hormones, slightly older Japanese soldier boy is telling his story of being a survivor of the 1923 Kanto earthquake (one of the worst earthquakes in history) in which he lost a number of family and friends. 
Villages demolished by Kanto earthquake

Emperor Hirohito viewing the damage from the Kanto earthquake

He grows up to become a soldier, following the common soldier life of marching, practicing marksmanship and visiting "houses of ill repute". He does have a brief love interest with an apprentice geisha -- the geisha's mother approaches him to offer her daughter's mizuage to him. Mizuage is the "deflowering" process each virgin geisha apprentice or meiko must go through before they are deemed a full-fledged geisha or geiko. To be offered a mizuage is considered a great honor for men and traditionally a rich man would pay a hefty fee to be assured his right to the girl but soldier boy is offered it because the meiko's mother wanted to assure her daughter a relatively painless, gentle mizuage.

Speaking of geishas, there are ways (in the form of outfit) to tell the apprentices from the full-fledged geishas, which they discuss in this book. One way is to look at the sleeves of the kimono. Meikos (those still in training) wear wide sleeves and often more ornate collars, while geikos wear more narrow sleeves and more subtle print kimonos.



When not visiting geishas, soldier boy takes his business to local prostitutes. Contrary to popular belief, geisha is not synonymous with prostitute, though sex can be part of an evening with a paying gentleman. It's actually more of an opportunity to share company with a woman heavily educated in arts such as literature, music, painting, tea ceremonies - skills not taught to the common woman. Because of this education, geishas have a higher price than run of the mill prostitutes, thus not commonly affordable on basic soldier pay, but boys can save up I guess! The prostitutes of the 1930s typically wore fashions of the period instead of the traditional kimono. 

As go girl works through her dramatic relationship with Min, soldier boy draws closer to her when he is asked to do a little espionage work, dressing as a Chinese man and playing go games with her in the park, in the hopes of garnering information to take to his superiors. This part confused me because I'm not sure what big secrets he thought he was going to find out from a random teenage girl that would help out the Japanese government ... and he later points this out himself. Through their games though, they develop a bond that is confusing but undeniable to both of them, and so the story develops into a tense, almost love story between people on opposing sides of the war. Amidst all the drama tearing their countries apart with newsmakers such as Chiang Kai-Shek and Emperor Pu Yi, they try to figure out what it is they feel, what draws them together, and how they can possibly make it work... with one HELL of a surprise ending... it's a resolution of sorts, but daaaammnnn lol.

Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial

Chiang Kai-Shek and wife May Soon Ling

Emperor Pu Yi and Empress Wan Rong

When soldier boy and his comrades aren't trying to work through their big boy hormones, there's a lot of talk about seppuku (also called harakiri) in the event that Japanese success in Manchuria doesn't come to full fruition. I am always amazed in the "all or nothing" attitude - there's so many areas of grey in life but some people still insist on the "if you're not 1st you're last" motto. Freakin' Ricky Bobbys of the world! :-P.

While Sa's writing skill is stunning, the story itself is not an easy one to read, but one I think needs to be read.  It feels sometimes as if in times of war we forget about the young kids that have to survive it. This gives an interesting perspective on such a situation and takes "coming of age story" to a whole new level! 

While I don't want to reveal the characters' names, as that is one of the powerful elements to the story's ending, I will give you a hint to the girl's name:

Have fun guessing! :-)