-- A Dual Review of Tombstone and Mao's Great Famine
In July 2011, Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine won the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize, one of Europe’s best known and most lucrative awards for a work of nonfiction. One of the judges, Brenda Maddox, explained to the Guardian why the book impressed her so much: “Why didn’t I know about this? We feel we know who the villains of the 20th century are — Stalin and Hitler. But here, fully 50 years after the event, is something we did not know about.”
That reaction highlights both the main contribution and main limitation of Dikötter’s book. Though there have been many books and articles published on the same subject — in English, Chinese, and I’m sure other languages — apparently Dikötter’s is the one that brought awareness to at least one more Westerner ignorant of the catastrophe. On the other hand, Dikötter’s attempt to draw parallels between the Mao-era famine that swept over the entirety of mainland China from 1959 to 1961 and killed tens of millions, the Holocaust, and the Soviet Gulag is, at best, an over-simplification that hinders understanding. To borrow what the discerning Asia scholar Ian Buruma once said on a different subject: “To distinguish between atrocities does not diminish the horror, but without clarity on these matters history recedes into myth and becomes a form of propaganda.”
The most authoritative study on the famine is Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone, which has a broader and deeper perspective. The Chinese language edition of the book was published in Hong Kong two years before Dikötter’s, and an English version is due out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in fall 2012.
(Read the complete review at LOSANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS)