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Alai: 尘埃落定 (Red Poppies)

This is a wonderful tale about the latter days of a Tibetan chieftain and his family. The hero is the second son of a Tibetan chieftain in the 1930s. The first son – the heir apparent – is a brave but essentially unimaginative and not very bright soldier. Our hero is the son of the chieftain’s second wife and, as a result, is assumed to be an idiot, as second sons traditionally are deemed to be idiots in Tibet. Of course, as it soon becomes clear, he is at times naïve, literal, unsophisticated but certainly not an idiot. He is actually very smart and very cunning and outlives (and outsmarts) his brother.

The Maichi tribe of which he is a member manages to outsmarts its traditional rivals and neighbours, by growing opium poppies and selling them to the ever eager Chinese. They make a lot of money, with which they are able to buy modern weapons and, thanks to the older brother, defeat their neighbours. When the neighbours finally manage to get hold of the poppy seeds and plant them, the Maichis, thanks to our idiot, are smart to enough to sow wheat and barley so that their neighbours have poppy seed but no food and have to buy food from the Maichis at extortionate prices. While the older brother is wondering what the hell is going on, the idiot is quietly but disingenuously consolidating power.

There is, of course, a sub-plot. The chief, the idiot’s father, has taken an attractive woman as his third wife. As the husband, not surprisingly, objected, he was executed. His family are therefore out for revenge and, eventually, gain it, not without the connivance of the idiot, himself the final victim. And, of course, the background is the gradual Chinese takeover of Tibet. At first they are too busy, firstly with their own civil war and then with the Japanese but we know, though the Tibetans (except, of course, for the idiot) do not seem to do so, that they will sooner or later take over the Maichis and the other Tibetan chieftains and much of the plot hinges on the approach of the Chinese.

But the historical background and plot take second place to what is simply a wonderfully told tale. The idiot is one of those naïve but smart characters, along the lines of GravesClaudius, and the other characters revolve around him. The background of a Tibet which thinks it is still in the nineteenth century but for which the twentieth century is rapidly arriving, makes for an interesting clash of cultures. However, it is Alai’s consummate storytelling skill that makes this novel so thoroughly enjoyable.

Publishing history

First published in 1998 by the People’s Literature Publishing House
First published in English 2002 by Houghton Mifflin
Translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin.