The Chinese Cultural Revolution, devised by the appalling Chairman Mao Tse-tung, was catastrophic for most of the people caught up in it. Children were separated from their families and sent to work farms to get a taste of proletarian life. Educators were targeted as agents of capitalism or the bourgeoisie. Dissidents were incarcerated in forced labor camps, and many people were arrested, denounced and disappeared for displaying even a hint of disagreement with government policy. The really bad news, as is seen in Belinda Huijuan Tang’s splendid A Map for the Missing, is that for some, the Cultural Revolution never quite ended.
In January 1993, Tang Yitian receives a call from his mother in China, which is startling in itself because she must travel to even find a phone. Yitian’s father is missing, she says. No one knows where he is or why he was taken—if indeed he was taken at all. Heeding the call of duty, Yitian, who has lived in the United States for nearly 10 years, flies home to investigate.
The operative word for Yitian is duty, not so much love. He and his father never got along, and the older man always disparaged Yitian’s desire for a better education and an easier life than the hardscrabble one his family endured in their little village. Tang gives a beautiful sense of Yitian’s fear, sorrow and unspoken resentment—toward both his father, for his bullying nature and the favoritism he showed toward Yitian’s late older brother, and his mother, for her seemingly endless subservience.
At times, A Map for the Missing brings to mind George Orwell’s 1984, though unlike that novel’s dystopian England (called Airstrip One), the chilling and deeply sad China depicted here is real. Yitian’s search for his father makes Winston Smith’s life on Airstrip One seem like a holiday in a warm climate. Even Winston’s love interest, Julia, has a counterpart in Yitian’s story: a woman called Hanwen, whose hunger for education and betterment is as strong as Yitian’s. She hails from the big city of Shanghai, but she’s been sent to the provinces for her edification, and her desire to help Yitian is prompted as much by the trauma of this forced relocation as it is by her not-so-secret love for him.
Along with Yitian, Hanwen and Yitian’s parents, Tang brings additional secondary characters to life, such Yitian’s beloved, broken grandfather and the unhappy girls who labor on the farm with Hanwen. The novel’s many teachers, police officers, clerks, shopkeepers and other bureaucrats are individuals and never interchangeable.
It’s astonishing that A Map for the Missing is Tang’s debut novel. This 400-page book, whose protagonist navigates a purgatory of twists and turns, red herrings and dead ends, is gripping from its first page to its last.