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You say you want a revolution?

By Amy C. Murphy

FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

Flowers for Mei-Ling, by Lorraine Lachs (Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.). Cloth, $24.

IN LORRAINE LACHS' first novel, Flowers for Mei-Ling, she takes the words of the Beatles' song "Revolution" to heart. The questioning impulse behind the lyrics parallels the purpose Lachs defines and develops through her novel: to consider not only the efficacy of revolutionary endeavors, but also the cost, often a personal one, of maintaining civilizations and the status quo they represent.

By developing the history of her character, Mei-Ling Wang, Lachs manifests a subtle critique of both revolutionary aims and the preservation of socioeconomic systems. Through the experiences of Mei-Ling and the other characters in her novel, Lachs shows that the impetus to revolt and the desire to defend the edifices of civilization are equally suspicious acts. The novel dramatizes this critique through Mei-Ling's metamorphosis: from a teenage member of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution in China, to a kept woman and high-class prostitute in Hong-Kong and Amsterdam, and finally into an accomplished, independent business woman living in Montreal.

Lachs illustrates the wages revolution wreaks for people like Mei-Ling who are swept up in its torrent. Mei-Ling's father, an intellectual and champion of Chairman Mao, is murdered by the Red Guard, ultimately victimized by revolutionary principles that become twisted into tyranny. After surviving a gang rape by her comrades, Mei-Ling escapes to Hong Kong with her mother, Emma, who buys their freedom by bartering away their family heirlooms. While pawning the last piece of family jade at a shop, they meet the more-than-sleazy Dutch venture capitalist Verhoeven, the man who helps Mei-Ling exchange one form of servitude for another.

Instead of doing the bidding of a tyrannical dictator, Mei-Ling, enabled by her mother, trades her body in order to survive. The communist ideals her mother still holds dear give way to the necessity of staying alive in a world in which the power of exchange holds sway. This is part of Lachs' keen analysis concerning the power dynamics of socioeconomic systems as seemingly diverse as communism and capitalism. Each system bases itself on ideals that ultimately become compromised by the desire for power.

That the revolutionary ideals spawned in response to the oppression created by capitalist systems and social hierarchies can themselves lead to the sowing of fresh inequalities ironically bears out the truth of an aphorism the author attributes to Karl Marx's: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," parrots the formerly devout Maoist Emma.

Far from revolution leading to the experience of a paradise on the earth, the misfortunes of the Wang family testify to the abysmal nature of life during the Cultural Revolution. Emma's response to the quality of life in the capitalist milieu of Hong Kong demonstrates Lachs' notion that the attempt to put revolutionary aims into practice can easily dissolve into disutopia: "Emma is undone by the abundance. In what she sees before her, there seems no evidence at all of what her husband...once described as...'mind, spirit, and matter held fast to one another, links in the golden chain of civilization.' Hong Kong, she thinks, is all matter, a vast shrine to indulgence. Everyone worships at the golden calf. But, at the same moment, she wonders: What was it she fled from? Surely not some higher order of civilization. It had been hell!"

It's impressive that while exposing the shortcomings of the implementation of communist principles in the East, Lachs does not simplistically wind up making the very Western argument that the world should be safe for democracy, and implicitly, capitalism. Lachs is equally astute at showing the casualties of the capitalistic impulse.

And interestingly, she achieves this balance by illustrating that transcendent sorts of oppression characterize both of these socioeconomic systems. Through the transformations of Mei-Ling throughout the story, Lachs shows that the unequal position of women in various societies, regardless of which political system holds sway, functions as a persistent common denominator, despite dreams of revolution.

Mei-Ling's violent induction into sexual experience while a member of the Red Guard attests to an inequality that persists despite the pretension of comradeship. Her survival through her occupations of mistress and prostitute constitutes a perhaps more patent symptom of women's inequality in a capitalist system.

Without money to earn one's keep, one becomes kept. Without money to trade for goods and services, one trades in flesh. As Mei-Ling pragmatically explains to the man she marries after her move in Montreal, "(H)aving money means having freedom...and independence...Money is useful."

Lachs refrains from offering easy answers to the problems of inequality that characterize the diverse socioeconomic systems traversing her novel. Her resistance to definitive judgments concerning the rightness of one system versus another is borne out by the fact that she concludes the action of the novel at the time of Great Britain's return of the colony of Hong Kong to the Chinese. The tenuousness of this moment of transition, the potentially destructive collision between the value systems represented by capitalism and communism "hang(s) suspended in a great anticlimax." Lachs eschews the late sixties optimism of the Beatles, resisting the impulse to join in the comforting chorus of "Don't you know it's gonna be all right. All right."

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