BOOKS: PAPERBACKS: VIOLENCE, PAIN, POVERTY - ANYONE FANCY A
SOMETHING LIKE A HOUSE BY SID SMITH PICADOR POUNDS 6.99
BY: Scarlett Thomas Whitbread award-winner Sid Smith: 'a good writer, but
his project is a mistake' PA - Independent on Sunday (London), January 27, 2002
Sid Smith likes a joke. After recently winning the Whitbread first novel
award with this novel, the first in a trilogy set in China, he explained that
not only had he never been to China but was also planning to continue the joke
by never going there.
Something Like a House tells the story of Jim Fraser, a British deserter
from the Korean War who, having come to China to "be nothing and no one" is
taken in by Miao villagers and stays with them for 35 years, witnessing and
taking part in the Cultural Revolution. Much of the factual detail has come from
secondary sources, which makes this a problematic project. With plenty of
Chinese novels being written on these themes, what can an outsider like Smith
possibly hope to add?
It's a hard one to call. All novelists write what they don't know. They tell
of diseases they haven't had, violence they haven't experienced, emotions they
haven't felt, people they haven't been. But the Miao culture actually belongs to
people, and the Cultural Revolution was real. What would people think if a
Chinese villager wrote a "firsthand" account of the experience of Bloody Sunday,
the Poll Tax demonstrations or the collapse of the Twin Towers without being
involved in the event? There are too many hidden codes in every culture - and
every event within it - that no secondary account can possibly communicate. No
one expects novelists to be journalists, but if a novel claims to describe
something real, it should tell the truth about it.
Sid Smith is a good writer, but his project is a mistake. The violence and
poverty in his text seem colourless, textureless and bland. Neither seems to
involve any pain. People work but there is no sense of work. People are hungry,
but you don't sense the need for food. Burning Worm by Carl Tighe, which was
also shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel award, absolutely succeeds where
this fails. Based on an English teacher's time in communist Poland, the book
contains no arrogance. Tighe constantly reminds us that there is much his
narrator cannot know. Smith, in contrast, rather grandly claims his novel is
about race. Maybe that's a joke too.
Ultimately, there is something of the Gap commercial, the manufactured pop
group, the Athena postcard, the Starbucks coffee in the experience of reading
this book. You hold it in your hands and the ink is real, the paper is real, yet
something about the experience feels cheap, secondhand, over-determined. This
is, ultimately, a product rather than a novel, and what's for sale is a fantasy,
not the truth about China.