Cover Image: After the Finale

After the Finale

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Member Reviews

Thank you to Netgalley for this advanced reader's copy in return for my honest review. I loved the writing style. While not conventionally told, the story is carefully crafted through a mix of interviews. Wonderfully book that builds to a crescendo.
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Ouyong Wantong, the former governor of Qinghe province, China, has just died aged 66 and this enjoyable novel takes the form of a series of interviews – of his wives, other family members, colleagues, employees – held by his biographer who is gathering material about the life and work of this influential man. A gradual picture emerges, told from different perspectives, of a moral and upright man living and working in an amoral and corrupt country, where connections are more important than ability, and who you know is more important than what you know. Always true to his own convictions Ouyong never waivers in his attempt to live a good life and to fight corruption wherever and whenever he sees it. It’s a fascinating character study and at the same time an exploration of the culture of a country where nepotism and bribery are rife, where becoming an “official” is all important, because only by being an official can you obtain status and the associated benefits, a country in which the scale of corruption is astounding to a western eye but which is here accepted as routine. The author uses the book to express his views and opinions on a number of subjects, from China’s GDP, the environment, world politics, house prices to the national debt, and these interludes are little more than a series of mini-lectures, which slowed the narrative but offered a valuable insight into the Chinese mind-set. I found it a very entertaining and illuminating novel and enjoyed seeing Ouyong being slowly revealed by the key people in his life, who all had a distinct and well-portrayed personality themselves, one which came across effectively in their interviews. The book is much more than a simple fictional biography. It’s also a compelling portrait of contemporary China.
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The last book i read about China in the 20th century was Wild Swans and this is a very different book - no less powerful. I did struggle to complete it  but that was more a feature of the writing style (and possibly of the translation) than the content or story. I found the pattern of the misuse of power was very creatively illustrated here - and as a reader I began to accept the collusion and complicity. This in turn led me to reconsider what i understand about the nature of power in China. I will re read this book.
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"Nowadays, how could anyone become an official through their personal struggle and abilities! Everyone looks for connections. Everyone relies on connections."

Ouyang Wantong died young, at the age of 66. This is his story.

It is not a conventionally told story. What we read are transcripts of multiple interviews with people connected to Ouyang (family members, colleagues, friends, acquaintances, even enemies). We don’t ever hear the interviewer’s voice, but it is clear from the words recorded that the interviewer is prompting in the background. This framing for the novel means that the story emerges gradually and it is mainly up to the reader to piece the information together. One connection may mention something in passing which will then be explained in more detail 10 chapters later. One person may give details of an event which, a few chapters later, is related completely differently by another person. Several times, interviewees make it clear that they know more than they are willing to say on the record and the reader is left to guess at what might have been revealed when the microphone was switched off. The reader’s main task whilst working through this fictional biography is to piece together a story. For me, as a European reader, this task was made slightly more difficult by the plethora of names: I find names in European books tricky to track sometimes, so when they are all Chinese names and unfamiliar, this becomes even more tricky. Fortunately, I read on the Kindle so it was always easy to highlight a name and review where I had seen it before.

But this is far more than the story of Ouyang Wantong. As we hear from people who knew him, a story about China gradually emerges. This is what attracted me to the book in the first place because, for some reason I can’t really explain, recent Chinese history fascinates me. Ouyang grew up in poverty under Mao and then rose through the ranks as China itself went through a period of reform and gradual opening up. So we learn about the Chinese attitude to GDP, about their fears regarding the USA (especially the debt they have built up), about concerns over the environmental damage being done by the huge industrial expansion. Japan looms large in the national consciousness.

One of the most notable things through the whole book is, as the quote at the start suggests, the ongoing need for connections in order to progress. The book also gives the impression that there is really only one direction in which any right-minded person would want to progress: to become “an official”. At a ceremony just after his birth, Wantong is presented with various objects and his choice will indicate his future. He picks a paintbrush and a musical instrument (a suona).

"But his grandfather…was angry. He snatched the suona and the drawing brush out of his hands, threw them on the ground, stuffed the...official seal into his hand and said to the confused little thing: 'You’re a man. What’s the value of being a suona player or a painter? If you have guts, be an official when you grow up. Bring something new to the Ouyang family and win glory for us!'"

Many of the problems faced by characters in the story are caused by their determination to become ever more important officials, rising through the ranks by bribery and nepotism.

For readers coming from a different culture, the writing takes time to get used to. For my tastes, there is an over-reliance on the use of lists. Again and again, a character will say something like “There are four things wrong with the Chinese economy. First…” and then go on to list each thing in turn taking a paragraph to explain. Time and time again their are lists of three, four or five things that need to be explained point by point. I don’t know if this is a characteristic of Chinese writing or of this particular author. Or even just of this particular book. I don’t remember noticing it in other Chinese books I’ve read, though.

This is a tale of love, betrayal, political corruption and greed. As the individuals in the story fight their own personal battles, in the background, a new world superpower gradually rises. If you are interested in China, it is a fascinating book to read.

3.5 stars rounded up because of my general interest in the subject matter.
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Ultimately so it is said that if you follow the writings of Marx you will create a world where each individual will be able to maximise their full potential irrespective of the circumstances of their birth. After reading Zhou Daxin's wonderfully compelling and subversive novel After the Finale it is clear that even in a country like China that is one of the few remaining countries that still at least  pays lip service to Marx there is a long way to go to achieve this Utopian ideal. Connections and having the right people put in a word for you are prerequisites for advancement and this system is strangely similar to our own where the top jobs in the judiciary, civil service, academia and government are filled with those who have attended the right public school and university. Here as in China, judges sons may well end up as judges. Another theme perhaps indeed the central theme that dominates the book is the scale and reach of corruption that is so all pervasive whether subtle or blatant that is has become an accepted part of everyday life. 

The novel is a fictionalised account of interviews being undertaken by a biographer who is gathering material on the life of Ouyang Wantong, the former governor of Qinghe province who has recently died at the age of 66. Those being interviewed include former wives, other family members, employees and those in the government both  sympathetic or not. Layer by layer a picture of Ouyang Wantong emerges and by using the interview device the reader is forced to sift through the evidence and evaluate the often contradictory sentiments and narratives given. But throughout there is a feeling of  mystery and malevolence emanating from dark forces at the heart of government and society that will do anything to protect their vested position. Many of the interviewees have more to tell and are clearly holding back something that they are afraid to go on the record with. 

Apart from a  dissection of the body politic we get glimpses of current Chinese attitudes to such subjects as the continual need to forever increase GDP. fears for the environment and the unease about the amount of US debt that they have acquired. Surprisingly (although given their history perhaps not) it is not the USA but rather Japan that is still seen as the existential threat. Unlike some other authors Zhou Daxin continues to live and work in China which gives his writing a an extra resonance. 

I know that there is book censorship in China but getting such a subversive book published might indicate that it is perhaps not on the level seen in the former Soviet Union days. This ultimately is a wonderful study of power and how one man despite his short comings must battle against powerful forces to remain true to his own convictions. A must read for those who would like to obtain a little bit more understanding of an increasingly powerful force in the world.
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