The Palest Ink
The title refers to a Chinese proverb that states that the palest ink is better than the best memory. Benfu and his friend Pony Boy attempt to document the abuses that occur during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1960s Shanghai. Benfu’s family is rather well-off, while Pony Boy has to work several jobs, including cleaning public toilets, to support his family after his father has a heart attack. Benfu meets an elderly man who asks him to hide a packet of negatives. Pony Boy’s girlfriend, Zu Wren, urges them to use the photos to create a newsletter of anti-government propaganda, which Pony Boy can distribute secretly on his father’s mail route. As rumors grow of Red Guard-led violence and rapidly-changing government policy, Benfu’s parents send him to the countryside with false identification papers, thinking to get him out of harm’s way. But he has difficulty passing himself off as a peasant and comes under suspicion. Pony Boy attempts to journey to by train to try and see Mao, but officials discover the illegal newsletter in his bag.
An author’s note states that the book is Bratt’s attempt to “pay tribute to the staggering amount of victims… who lost their lives due to the ten years of China’s so-called Cultural Revolution.” She lived in China for several years, and includes a reference list of her research sources. Pony Boy and Benfu are characters the reader will identify with. Learning about life in mid-20th century China was interesting, despite a few information dumps. The book enlightened me about some of the Cultural Revolution’s abuses, which were not made public for decades. I recommend this novel to readers wanting to experience an infamous period of Chinese history, where a single wrong word or action could have disastrous consequences.