While studying at Beijing University during China's Cultural Revolution, Jan Wong turned in a classmate for committing an unforgivable crime: professing a desire to visit the United States of America. The student, Yin, was expelled and sent to the countryside for years of hard labor. Three decades later, Wong -- now an award-winning Canadian journalist -- traveled back to Beijing to search for the student she wronged. And, apparently just as important, to write a book about it.
In "A Comrade Lost and Found," Wong doesn't let us forget that above all else she's a reporter (if only because about a dozen sentences contain the clause, "As a journalist, I ... "). Although written in the first person -- a perspective that should be conducive to introspection -- the prose is filled more with details of a geopolitical landscape than with the emotional landscape that this book necessitates.
Wong often remarks how this Beijing is different, with its condos and McDonald's, from the sparse, simple Beijing she knew as a student. At times this seems to be the book's main purpose, and the first two-thirds of "Comrade" are basically a guided tour through the city. While rendered in incisive detail, the narrative of a changing cityscape is simply less interesting than the narrative of Wong searching out the person whose life she ruined. Repeatedly, though, she ditches her mission and goes to a museum, or out to dinner with a former colleague, or to a mahjongg parlor with her kids.
When, in a staggeringly serendipitous turn, Wong does finally find the wronged comrade, the meeting is anticlimactic. It turns out that Yin had committed between 25 and 30 offenses, all of which led to her punishment. She bears no grudge against the Canadian. Even when Wong tries to exaggerate her own wrongdoing, professing that she snitched voluntarily, Yin shrugs her shoulders. "Let me put it this way," she says. "You didn't have that much power. You didn't have enough influence to ruin my life."
As Wong summarizes the hardships Yin endured -- expulsion, public and familial humiliation, a suicide attempt -- the story does become engaging, but not for the reasons it should. This is fantastic biography, and has little to do with Wong's mission of repentence.
Max Ross writes a book blog at crackingspines. tumblr.com. He lives in Minneapolis.