Every so often a book comes along that captures a place and time so well it overturns the platitudes and excuses, and punctures the rationalizations and the blaming. For many years from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s China was convulsed in a nationwide struggle for the soul of the country, known as the Cultural Revolution. For years after, the blame for the terrible destruction lay with Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four. The cost in lives lost and ruined is still untotaled, but China has returned to something like normal. In the past several years, the West has begun to come to terms with the stark reality of the Cultural Revolution through books like Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai and films like Farewell, My Concubine. But for the Chinese, the process began with the pseudonymous publication of Ma Bo's extraordinary novel, Blood Red Sunset. A potent, unbridled memoir of the Cultural Revolution, Blood Red Sunset is one of China's biggest bestsellers in history, selling more than 400,000 copies. It is the story of a young man filled with ideological fervor who wrote a petition - in his own blood - to join the revolution in rural northern China. There he participated in the making of an ecological disaster on the Mongolian grasslands while joining his mates in the often brutal efforts to "re-educate" herd owners and "capitalist Chinese." Then, after casually criticizing a Chinese leader, this idealistic youth was denounced as an "active counterrevolutionary," betrayed by his friends, beaten, and imprisoned. His is a story of victimizing and victimization, a reminder of the evil we do to each other and the passionate humanity that survives against all depredations.
``We were dupes of class struggle'' the author says of the 1966-76 national aberration known as the Cultural Revolution, ``made to howl at the moon like a pack of dogs.'' When the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party launched the One-Smash-and-Three-Oppose Campaign in 1970, the author was a fervent Red Guard. But his best friend betrayed him and Ma Bo was denounced as an ``active counterrevolutionary,'' charged with slandering Chairman Mao and sentenced to labor reform in the quarries of Inner Mongolia. An irrepressible, pugnacious young man, Ma Bo launched a campaign to convince the authorities to reopen his case. The upshot was a period of official ostracism and personal isolation; how he managed to cope with this while suffering the tortures of unrequited love forms a major portion of this compelling memoir. In 1976 the Party unexpectedly changed the verdict on him to ``serious political errors'' and ordered his conditional release. A huge bestseller in China, this richly detailed record is told with raw narrative power. Ma Bo is writer-in-residence at Brown University. (Mar.)