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January 27, 2010

China plus - a book review

Butterfly Mind; Revolution, Recovery, and One Reporter's Road to Understanding China, Patrick Brown, Anansi, 2008, 254pp, ISBN978-0-88784-830-8

This book is intriguing—and more than a little alarming.

When Patrick Brown was an eleven year old student in Birmingham, England, he tells us, his parents went eagerly to a meeting with his schoolmaster to hear about their brilliant son. The somewhat eccentric history master considered briefly and then pronounced: “Brown! Butterfly mind!”

Brown’s self-deprecating humour is an engaging part of this book, as it is of his foreign correspondent reports for CBC.

He observes wryly that his teacher was quite correct and inadvertently paid him a compliment. A butterfly mind, Brown concludes, was exactly what he needed as a foreign correspondent who had to find his way quickly into strange surroundings, assess them and report on them.

There are at least three continuing threads through this book. Brown writes frankly about his epic alcoholism and his struggle to come to terms with it.

He recounts visits to the trouble spots of the world, often in truly dangerous circumstances which he treats lightly. And in each chapter, he addresses his growing commitment to China, its people and its challenges.

Patrick Brown’s CBC reports are always marked by a puckishness which reaches to the heart of a situation and especially makes real connections with people.

That same insight marks his writing, and we see that he has special gift for making friends, often in bizarre circumstances. People give him insight into their lives and countries.

The accounts in this book of events in eastern Europe are chilling. Brown shows us clearly just how much trouble a “bunch of schoolyard bully boys” can create when they gain a measure of power. We see clearly how the influence of such thugs can distort a whole society, making the lives of its citizens miserable.

The danger zones of Afghanistan come vividly alive, as do the Philippines, East Timor, Cambodia, North Korea through their troubled times—which, of course, are the reason Brown was there.

An over-riding impression left by his stories is that democracy and any social contract are fragile, that they can break down almost overnight, especially in countries where they have not been very firm anyway.

Each chapter of Brown’s book inevitably turns to China, which has fascinated him for a long time: “Twenty years ago, when I was walking down a Chinese street for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the din of chatter I couldn’t understand, and the clutter of signs, billboards, and slogans I couldn’t read.” 

Brown goes on to say, “I used to think that, if only I could speak the language well, I would be able to find out what is going on in this country, and understand what it all means.”

Ironically, the more Brown came to know about China and its language, the more he knew that he did not understand. He concludes that all theories about China contain the seeds of their own contradiction and that all predictions about it are bound to be wrong—largely because it is so complex.

This vividly written book deserves more attention. I stumbled on it in a bookshop in the Toronto airport, having not heard anything about it since its publication in 2008.

I read it in the place apart which is St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, in its sea fog, among trees hung with droplets of ice, transforming them into rainbows under a cold moon. A place of clear air.

I returned from that place and this compelling book to southern Ontario and to the announcement that Stephen Harper had prorogued Parliament.

In the light of what Brown writes about the egocentric power figures of the world and the trouble they cause, over and over again, I admit to outrage and also a touch of fear.

How dare Harper manipulate us and the precious institutions of our country for his own inhumane, ideological purposes? I had not thought that we were at such risk of losing our democracy.


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