Maxine Hong Kingston's "Fifth Book of Peace" reviewed
by William Severini Kowinski
An edited version of this review was published on p.1 of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Book Review on 9/7/03. You can find it here. What follows is the Director's Cut. It preserves my actual lead, which expresses more clearly my admiration for this book. And it keeps in some of the nuances, like the double meaning of "vibrance" which links color to life, as in the paragraph in which it appears, the absense of color is linked to death. It retains the expression "talk story" which Kingston readers will recognize. Plus, as they say, so much more...
The Fifth Book of Peace
By Maxine Hong Kingston
KNOPF; 416 PAGES; $26
Maxine Hong Kingston's long-awaited new book combines fiction and memoir in a "tour de force"--or more appropriately, a "tour de paix"--- that's full of thought and feeling, with interweaving themes and literary layers to keep her Berkeley students busy, and wonderful reading for us all.
As far back as her late 1980s interview with Bill Moyers, Kingston talked about re-imagining the contents of ancient China's three Books of Peace, instructions on how to avoid war and induce tranquility, which according to legend were all deliberately burned by incoming emperors. She also planned to follow the further adventures of Wittman Ah Sing, protagonist of her novel, "Tripmaster Monkey," during the Viet Nam war. She combined these intentions in 156 pages she spent two years writing, the beginning of a fourth Book of Peace. But then in 1991 came the devastating fire in the Berkeley-Oakland hills that destroyed her home and turned her manuscript to ashes: the fourth book of peace had suffered the fate of the first three. And so her new book, "The Fifth Book of Peace," begins with a section called "Fire."
She was returning from "the red ceremony," a family memorial for her recently deceased father, in which the living fend off the temptation to join the black and white world of the dead by wearing red; by displaying vibrance. Then she was walking in the ash-blackened and heat-scorched white landscape that had been her neighborhood, where the only color left was the red of flame.
Starting with a fiery disaster is a dramatic way to begin a book, and by documenting her sense impressions, thoughts, feelings and encounters with others in the fire zone, Kingston produces a mesmerizing description of an event creating its own fatal landscape, both stark and hallucinatory. But it is also a thematic initiation: before they get to peace, many have gone through fire. The devastation is itself an object lesson. Kingston quotes an Oakland fire captain and Viet Nam vet who looked down from a helicopter on the melted phantoms of beloved neighborhoods and cautioned, "When we decide to send our military and our bombs into a country, this is what we're deciding to do." [p14](He's quoted again, applying this observation to 9/11 in the book's epilogue.)
The next section, "Paper," is about the Books of Peace, and about books, writing, words and storytelling; paper is the human element. These sections are memoir as in "The Woman Warrior" and "China Men," though more weighted to contemporary America. "Water" is the re-written remnant of the intended earlier book, a fiction following Wittman, his wife and young son to Hawaii where he hides from the Vietnam era draft. If "Tripmaster Monkey" is discursive, hermetic and Whitmanesque in its frenetic energies, this tale is more descriptive, economical and open, imbued with the magic of discovery, of first times. In its depiction of young war resisters from within the military, it is both generous and accurate to the era. If asked for prose that reflects the realities of the Viet Nam 60s in America, I'd have no hesitation in recommending these pages. There's also memorable writing, like the description of two men walking: "The small soldier and the tall soldier walked the same way; they made their shoulders big, and moved shoulders and feet in rhythm, one side of the body at a step." [234-5]
The last section, "Earth," is a reportorial and collaborative account of writing and meditation workshops Kingston held in the mid 90s with war veterans---mostly Viet Nam vets (including civilian women), but also World War II Americans and veterans of other armies and wars. Again she brings her considerable skills to describing the emotionally ragged process that leads to a series of dramatic and revelatory moments, including several of reconciliation and even peace. The war veterans find their way back to community through honest saying and story. There are countless little jewels to admire glittering on the path throughout this book, such as a different ending for the woman warrior tale, and the true account of how Thich Nhat Hanh invented the Hugging Meditation.
The relevance of all this to our current moment, as we revisit in Iraq the slowly unfolding horrors of quagmire, gives these journeys a particular resonance. But the issues and emotions of war and peace are always with us, and this book does a service for all seasons. The author doesn't back off from uncomfortable observations, such as the vets' willingness to forgive Vietnamese enemies but not American war protestors. Liberation through self-expression turns out to be not enough; some shadow work is also indicated. But others must write more books of peace to follow this inspirational example. For now, we have this marvelous opus to talk story to us on all our roads to peace.