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Immaculate tale of Madame Mao


"Becoming Madame Mao," by Anchee Min. Houghton Mifflin. 337 pages. $25.

Anchee Min's devastating new novel, "Becoming Madame Mao," raises our expectations of what the historical novel can achieve. With an unique combination of literary technique, psychological insight and cinematic daring, Min creates a thoroughly absorbing account of the impoverished and willful girl Jiang Ching's self-transformation into the actress and Communist thunderbolt Madame Mao.

Min had a personal link to Mao, aka "the white-boned demon," that feeds her narrative: After Chairman Mao's death in 1976, Min was plucked from a labor camp to star in a propaganda film for Madame Mao -- who, soon thereafter, was denounced and sentenced to death. Min, named a Mao acolyte, was forced to work as a set clerk in the Shanghai Film studios for eight years.

In the process of clearing her name, she spent time with friends and enemies of Madame Mao, gaining enormous insight into her psyche. Min brings to life the propaganda operas, the backstage intrigue, the reversals and betrayals that were a part of Madame Mao's daily life. She also limns the intense sexual and emotional longing for men and for the spotlight that drove Mao -- first, to excel at her craft and, later, to destroy her enemies.

It's an awesome task -- to tell an intensely personal story of a woman who lived on a vast stage -- and Min chisels an immaculate narrative by mixing voices with a DJ's precision. In lesser hands this technique would be a disaster, but Min never loses her self-confident footing.

For instance, this scene from Jiang Ching's girlhood, after her mother has bound her feet: "The girl has no trouble until the third week. She is already tired with her elephant legs and now comes the pain. Her toes scream for space. Her mother is near her. She is there to prevent the girl from tearing off the strips. She guards the elephant legs as if guarding the girl's future."

We cut immediately from this family close-up scene to a big-picture scene: "The year is 1919. Shan-dong Province, China. The town is the birthplace of Confucius. It is called Zhu. The ancient walls and gates stand high. From the girl's window the hills are like giant turtles crawling along the edge of the earth."

Then, a paragraph later, we jump forward in time: "The girl is never able to forget the pain, even when she becomes Madame Mao, the most powerful woman in China during the late sixties and seventies. She recalls the pain as 'evidence of the crimes of feudalism' and she expresses her outrage in a series of operas and ballets."

To complete this prismatic series of scenes, we jump back to the moment Jiang Ching rips the glued strips from her feet: "My mother is shocked the moment I throw the smelly binding strips in front of her and show her my feet. They are blue and yellow, swelling and dripping with pus."

This narrative strategy has the effect of amplifying the emotions that anchor Mao in China's history and compressing -- even eliminating -- the dryness that often afflicts historical fiction. I cannot remember the last time I learned so much from a book I couldn't stop reading.

Ben Neihart's first novel was "Hey, Joe." His second, "Burning Girl," has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.

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