When the protagonist, Fugui, loses all his money and property because of his addictive gambling right at the beginning of the novel, To Live by Yu Hua (translated by Michael Berry) , we know that it will not be a typical hero who succeeds in all his endeavors.
What is the book about?
After squandering all his family’s wealth that was accumulated over a long period of time, Fugui is consigned to a small piece of land on the outskirts of his village. Not able to take the shock of Fugui’s mistake, his father soon dies while he is left to take care of his wife, mother and daughter, Fengxia.
Thus, from being a landowner’s whoring and gambling son, he becomes a mere peasant. The whole family now struggles to survive.
The story spans Fugui’s entire life and sheds a unique light on several aspects of China’s history such as the coming of communist policies and having common policies such as communal agricultural practices.
To Live is also marred by deep horrors and suffering from his participation in the brutal Civil War, to the unending starvation they faced due to misguided policies and the many deaths of his family members that Fugui had to unfortunately see. His transformation from a wastrel to a loving father, make the protagonist, Fugui, an example of both grit and a tough survivor.
One last reason to pick it up?
The novel, To Live, actually starts with a narrator who is reminiscing and thinking about how he collected folk songs in the countryside ten years ago. While doing that, he once took a nap in the fields and chanced across an elderly man who was affectionately talking to his ox and gently coaxing it to work by mentioning names of other oxen. This interesting habit, of course, intrigued the nameless folk song collecting narrator and that man was of course, Fugui himself-now wearied from all his past struggles and lightheartedly singing away to his ox.
From then on, Fugui is the one who then narrated his life story to the original narrator.
For this reviewer, that is in fact quite an interesting narrative style, that makes To Live worth a read along with all the first hand information one gets about China and its long history as well.
Read a sample over here: https://read.amazon.ca/nc/?kcrFree=only&asin=B000XU8DU6