Ping Lu (平路), the Taiwanese novelist, columnist and cultural critic is reputed for her feminist approach to many social issues. In her introduction to this new novel she calls it a difficult subject which took her "seven or eight years" to research, and was all the more demanding on account of her determination to be able to point to a historical record to support every detail offered in her story.
The book can't at present be published in China because of the authors' close-up picture of Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), revered as a hero there just as he is in Taiwan, even if a less crucial figure for Beijing than he is for the Taipei authorities. But Love and Revolution is scarcely politically correct here either, as Ping observes. But it has already been published in Chinese in Taipei, and in Japanese in Tokyo, and now arrives in an English translation by Fu-jen Catholic University's Nancy Du in Columbia's admirable Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series.
The novel begins in 1924, the year before Sun's death from liver cancer. He and his wife, Song Qingling (宋慶齡), are on a ship sailing from Kobe in Japan to Tianjin in China. Sun is 59 and Song 34.
The book is structured as alternating authorial narratives, half about Sun and half about Song. A few extra chapters are narrated by one of Song's two daughters, born to another man after Sun's death. Each of the two main narratives ends with the death of its subject, Sun's in 1925, Song's in 1981.
It's already possible to foresee from the above information that both the book's organization and its dependence on massive historical investigation might lead to a certain formality of presentation. The time it took to write (most of it, you feel, spent on research) may have taken its toll. When you have a large amount of historical detail waiting to be incorporated, the flow and emotional evolution on which good novels depend both risk getting impeded.
It's not exactly that historical detail clutters up a story so much as that nuggets of information, once discovered, almost insist on finding a place somewhere in the text, so that the writer is drawing endlessly on card indexes or their computerized equivalents rather than letting the feelings of the characters take the tiller. And it's feeling-driven narratives rather than research-driven ones that hook readers and send sales rocketing. Tolstoy knew plenty about Napoleon's invasion of Russia when he sat down to write War and Peace, but he hid his knowledge and gave his characters primacy at all points in the story. That Dan Brown wears his knowledge on his sleeve is one of the weaknesses of The Da Vinci Code.
Ping's portrayal of Sun will shock the conventional. On his death he quickly became a hero of China's emerging nationalism, and heroes aren't supposed to have blemishes. When England's Oliver Cromwell told the man painting his portrait to show him "warts and all" he was being unusual — history's tendency, especially with revolutionary figures, is to idealize — or, if their ideology isn't approved of, then to denigrate wholesale, as in Jung Chang (張戎) and Jon Halliday's recent debunking book on Mao.
Ping portrays Sun as in many ways a rather inadequate figure. He's certainly shown close-up — we see him picking his nose, having liver-spotted hands and frostbite scars on his feet, with his skin clammy and his saliva giving off an unpleasant smell. Politics aged him fast. He thinks himself too mild-mannered for a revolutionary, is considered by others indecisive, and is told at one point that although he may be a significant figure historically, he was not one of the genuinely powerful men on the political scene.