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Books you need to read this March

BY James Walton

6th Mar 2023 Must Reads

Books you need to read this March

This month, we dive into a grim yet amusing book about ageing from Margaret Atwood and an exploration of the harrowing impact of Chairman Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution

Old Babes in the Woods: Stories by Margaret Atwood

Over her long and miraculously productive career (the “By the Same Author” section here runs for two pages), Margaret Atwood has been celebrated for many things. One of the few authors to win the Booker Prize twice, she’s written acclaimed poetry, essay-collections, children’s books and adult fiction ranging from the historical to the futuristic—including most famously The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet, what’s sometimes overlooked is how funny she can be. 

On the face of it, Old Babes in the Wood should be a distinctly gloomy read. In several stories, Atwood—now 83—ponders the indignities of ageing, with the characters realising their growing frailty, the pointlessness of vanity about how they look and the increasing tendency of their friends to die. Above all, there’s a sense of finding themselves in an unfamiliar and weirdly priggish new world, where almost everything they thought they knew seems to no longer apply.  

"Atwood’s lavish literary talents remain wholly undiminished"

At the same time, however, Atwood is always aware of the comedy involved in becoming elderly. At times, indeed, the characters appear to relish their transformation into “old biddies”: freed from the whole business of sex (“You don’t have to hold your stomach in anymore”) and allowed to behave as eccentrically as they like. They’re also amused, as well somewhat dismayed, by the over-earnestness of 21st-century young women, before amusedly remembering their own youthful over-earnestness.  

The collection is bookended by seven clearly autobiographical tales written after the death from dementia in 2019 of Atwood’s partner of nearly 50 years, Graeme Gibson. Again, though, these are by no means simply grim. While Atwood spares us none of the pain and bewilderment of widowhood, she writes infectiously of the fun the couple had back when they were oblivious of what lay in store. (“Obliviousness had served them well,” she ruefully notes.)  

Along the way, we also get a few wild flights of fantasy where realism is left far behind. But something we never get—unusually for a short-story collection—is anything resembling a dud. Instead, there’s just page after page proving that, however much the book might acknowledge physical decline, Atwood’s lavish literary talents remain wholly undiminished. 

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Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution by Tania Branigan

In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong launched the “Cultural Revolution” to rid China of all lingering “rightist” elements after 17 years of his Communist rule. The shock troops who initially carried it out were mainly teenagers—including girls as young as 13—known as the Red Guards. These burned religious symbols, confiscated “bourgeois” possessions (basically any nice things) and in many cases beat their own supposedly treacherous teachers with clubs, sometimes to death.  

People accused of unsound views were forced to make public confessions while painfully tied up wearing dunces’ caps and with heavy placards around their necks held by wire which slowly cut into the skin. Not that this saved them. By the time the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, two million people had been killed and 36 million hounded out of jobs and homes, often into forced labour in the countryside

"Branigan compellingly illuminates both China’s past and present"

In this brilliant, unsettling book, Tania Branigan speaks to many of those involved, perpetrators as well as victims. She also explores the Cultural Revolution’s continuing effects in a country whose economic fortunes have since been transformed but whose people, she argues, have never got over the trauma of seeing neighbours and family members turn on each other so readily: a trauma made worse by the fact that the terror of those years isn’t properly acknowledged. (A huge portrait of Mao still dominates Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.) The result is a book that compellingly illuminates both China’s past and present, especially now that freedom of expression is under renewed assault. 

One of Branigan’s interviewees is Zhang Hongbing who as a teenager denounced his own mother Fang not long after Liu Shaoqi, a former ally of Mao’s, was purged in 1969…

Mao Zedong's portrait in Tiananmen Square

Mao Zedong's portrait in Tiananmen Square

“It was late one evening, and Fang was doing the laundry. She made an acerbic allusion to Chairman Mao; Zhang accused her of viciously attacking and insulting Mao Zedong Thought. As the row ignited, Fang abandoned all caution. She said she wanted Liu Shaoqi’s case to be reopened. She said: ‘The traitor, spy, thief—whatever they say of Liu Shaoqi—is Chairman Mao. The Communist Party has changed its colours. Why has Chairman Mao made a personality cult? His image is everywhere.’  

‘I warned her: “If you go against my dear Chairman Mao, I will smash your dog head . . .” There was a yellow washtub and I meant we would use that to smash my mother’s head,’ Zhang said.  

‘I felt it wasn’t my mother—it wasn’t a person. She suddenly became a monster. She had become a class enemy. My father said: “Fang Zhongmou, I’m telling you—from now on our family separates itself from you, this person who insists on taking a counter-revolutionary position. You are the enemy and we will struggle against you. The poison you just released, you should write it down.” And my mother said: “It’s easy. I can finish it in five minutes. I dare to say, dare to write, dare to do.”’  

Zhang and his father left to report her. By the time they returned she had finished her letter—effectively a suicide note. It called for Chairman Mao to be removed from all official positions and for the senior leaders he had purged to be exonerated.  

‘My father said, “You will be buried.” Mother replied: “It shows it’s Mao Zedong who should be buried, not me.”’  

"Zhang was lionised for his betrayal"

Zhang remembered his mother trembling, her chattering teeth, her struggle with his father as she ripped down the portrait of Mao which each family kept in their home. She barricaded herself in the bedroom and tried to burn the picture.  

‘Beat the counter-revolutionary!’ her husband cried as they forced their way in. ‘I still felt I couldn’t do it. She was my own mother,’ Zhang said. ‘I didn’t smash her head, but I hit her twice on her back.’  

He described the officials arriving. How one kicked out his mother’s legs from under her, so that she fell. How they bound her with rope, and how he heard her shoulder crack as they hauled her to her feet. ‘She walked out with her head high as if she didn’t feel any shame.’ His mother was executed less than two months later.  

Did he have any doubts about informing on her?  

‘I didn’t have any doubts. This was a monster, not my mother.’  

Did he know what would happen? 

‘I knew. According to the regulations, I understood it meant death.’  

Zhang was lionised for his betrayal. His town held an exhibition in his honour. He showed us the cartoonish illustrations it included: sketches of him denouncing his mother and—in the last frame—the blood spurting from Fang’s mouth as she was shot.” 

Red Memory by Tania Branigan

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