The River Below

Francois Cheng
ISBN 9781566491006 (hardcover)
Published in March 2001
MSRP $24.95
Other editions available:
Winner of the 1998 Prix Femina
"A vibrant example of an artist well versed in what the Chinese call 'triple excellence' - poetry, calligraphy, painting; a translator into Chinese of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rene Char, and Henri Michaux; and a delicate poet of the dialogue between mineral and vegetable, stone and wood, universe and man, Francois Cheng received one day a letter from Claude Roy who wrote, 'Kipling's phrase, 'The Orient and the Occident can never meet', was a huge mistake; you are the living contradiction of that. The River Below is the story of a double initiation, that of a Chinese and European art, of the mystery and beauty which express themselves in a landscape, an echo of the interior world, and through that an exaltation of matter, a glorification of the invisible."
- Jean-Luc Douin, Le Monde
"Rare are the books which contain an entire life. More rare are those which assemble more than one life in their depths. Rarest of the rare are the books which unite two strange worlds, which let us feel what links these worlds through the alchemy of a mysterious and universal communication - this is what Francois Cheng has just achieved in this incomparable novel."
- Jean Mambrino, Etudes
"Who is Tianyi? The author's soul mate, obviously, but also the literary incarnation of all the Chinese artists and intellectuals who lived the horrible tragedies of Maoism, the immense hopes, the pains of exile, and the even greater pains of returning home. Who is Tianyi? A man born in 1925 into a traditional family, and his initiation into beauty. The beauty of the clouds and fog of Mount Lu, the beauty of women, the beauty of a life so innocent, the beauty of books... An intimate epic which brings together East and West and captures the fury of our century, The River Below is a stunning book."
- Le Point
"(The River Below) is a novel, an epic, an initiatic voyage through Chinese and European art, whose rhythm is created by individual and collective suffering."
- L'Humanite
"Lyrical, image-driven and provocative, Cheng's novel is composed in the form of an artist's memoir, recording not just what is seen but the consciousness of seeing, like Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Tianyi, the artist and narrator, is ending his days in an institution. His mind partially destroyed by physical torture and emotional suffering, he relates his tale of three friends, an artist, a poet and an actress who grow up in China together in the '30s and '40s during decades of monumental political and social upheaval. In 1948, Tianyi gets a chance to study in Paris. He remains there during Mao's takeover of China, until 1957, when he receives a letter from his childhood friend and first love, Yumei ("the Lover"), which prompts him to return to China. Tianyi's Westernized attitudes soon get him shipped off to a labor camp in the far north. Heavily symbolic (Tianyi confronts "the Visitor," the specter of his own death and the death of art), the novel can be read on several levels. It unrolls like an allegorical scroll, its characters at once individuals and symbolic figures, as in the I Ching, in which the individual reflects the universal. On yet another level, the book testifies to the horrors of 20th-century Chinese history. This highly literate novel stuns with its intense imagery and philosophical depth. Cheng, a writer, poet, translator and professor, puts a human face on the Chinese artists and intellectuals who suffered and died under Mao's regime."
- Publishers Weekly
"The story of Tianyi, a Chinese painter living through his country's turbulent recent history, is framed by a foreword and an afterword, a nonfiction convention seemingly to persuade the reader that the novel is author Cheng's presentation of Tianyi's own work. The first-person narrative and the diary-like recounting of events impart an artless immediacy that pulls the reader along with a sense of living through the events. It begins in 1930, with Tianyi as a five-year-old. Illness and loss, love and adventure, and war shape his middle-class rural Chinese life. A scholarship brings him to Paris to study painting, where he stays nine years. He is safe from the political and social upheavals of Mao's China, and even with his poverty and itinerant status, he finds love and contentment of a sort as an expatriate. The pleas of his former love take him back to the tragedy and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The style and passion of this translation of a 1998 prizewinner from France and best-seller in Canada will surely find it a following in the U.S. Danise Hoover."
- Booklist