The Nation, Oct 30, 1989 v249 n14 p498(2)

Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June. Mitch Berman; Susanne Lee.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1989 The Nation Company L.P.

TIANANMEN DIARY: Thirteen Days in June.

"At some moment"--Harrison Salisbury means that very particular moment when the massacre began in Beijing--"I half awoke. I seem to remember very heavy gunfire. Two A.M.? Three A.M.? . . . Maybe. I half awoke and said, `Oh fuck!' and turned over."

Wait. Harrison Salisbury was in the Beijing Hotel, overlooking Tiananmen Square, on June 4 of this year, when the People's Liberation Army moved in, indiscriminately booming their machine guns down crowded Changan Avenue, and what did he do? He half awoke, said "Oh fuck!" and turned over. Marcel Proust's editor once complained that Proust took thirty pages to describe turning over in bed. Harrison Salisbury has done Proust one better: He has taken an entire volume.

Salisbury has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, including a Pulitzer Prize and stints as Moscow correspondent for The New York Times and president of the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters. There are a few bright moments in his twenty-sixth book--the author is a knowledgeable observer of the military, for example, and his insights into the winding course of Deng Xiaoping's life have interest--but it does not find Salisbury at the top of his game.

The trouble with this book is simple: Its author saw almost nothing. He was in Beijing for a grand total of four days, of which he spent only a few hours outside his hotel. He made two brief trips to Tiananmen Square. Little, Brown's rush to market the first book on the events in China this spring evidently allowed no time for editing the text inside, but the publisher did slap on the cover the eye-catching, if somewhat deceptive, title Tiananmen Diary.

Little, Brown is lucky it did not edit this book; it would have wound up with only one chapter. Even copy editing would have deprived Tiananmen Diary of much of its amusement value, from its stream of malapropisms ("Two Taiwan ladies," "quick-food shops") to its odd tendency to change tenses mid-paragraph to its plethora of factual errors.

According to Salisbury, for example, the student's statue of the Goddess of Freedom and Democracy was made of plastic; plaster was the stuff. Salisbury frequently drops the name of The New York Times's Beijing bureau chief, but wherever he does it is misspelled. Twelve times in a span of four pages he calls the alleys of Beijing hutangs--the word is hutong. (Unlike most other authors who have published so extensively on China, Salisbury does not speak Chinese.)

Even the back jacket photo, which poses the author--white-maned and august, looking for all the world as if he is writing a much better book than Tiananmen Diary--in front of the goddess statue, has been flopped so that the statue is facing in the wrong direction. The same photo appears in ads for the book, still stubbornly reversed. (If this seems quibbling, imagine the Statue of Liberty brandishing her torch in her left hand.)

Caveat emptor: When Salisbury mentions "my companion on the Long March," he neglects to clarify that he was not, in fact, on the Long March of 1934-35, when Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and 90,000 of their comrades trekked 6,000 miles across China on foot, a trip fewer than half of them survived. Actually, Salisbury means a journey that took place half a century later, when he retraced the steps of the original Long Marchers under considerably less trying circumstances. Oh, that Long March.

A full and unexpurgated diary this is, replete with at least a dozen descriptions of meals the author has either enjoyed ("Rice was excellent. I spiced it up with a little soy sauce, which I ordinarily dislike"), enjoyed with some reservation ("Good, but I didn't think the noodles quite as succulent as I remembered them last year"), not enjoyed ("A glorious Chinese meal. Too tired to enjoy it"), just plain eaten ("Breakfast now being served in Western dining room. Orange juice, coffee, and fried eggs") or not eaten at all ("No breakfast at the hotel today").

Salisbury continually apprises the reader that he has either called his wife, has thought of calling her, plans to call her, wants to call her or waits to call her. Within the context of Tiananmen Diary, it is almost unbearably exciting when Salisbury actually ventures down to the hotel lobby to buy his wife a sweater. "I bought a lovely pink cardigan for Charlotte. There were stacks of them. Ordinarily they never have more than one or two and never in the style or color you want. The young man knew no English, but we made out somehow."

Despite the inclusion of all these adventures--in large print surrounded by vast expanses of white space--Tiananmen Diary remains a trim volume recommended for the reader on a limited-verbiage diet. It goes down easily and, as they say, an hour later you don't remember reading a thing. The book is virtually monosyllabic--not just in words but sometimes even sentences. Here are two full diary entries arranged to consume a quarter of a page:

Beijing Hotel, 8:53 P.M. Spatter of  fire.

Beijing Hotel, 8:54 P.M. More.

Salisbury's main stylistic influence appears to have been John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible: "Jesus wept." The nutshell is his preferred format, whether discussing complicated situations ("Future beclouded"; "It is a nutty situation"; "This is heavy stuff"; "How sad"; "Poor China"), tense circumstances ("Very quiet. Too quiet") or the complex personalities of China's foremost leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping ("the elusive little man") and Hu Yaobang ("a marvelous, bouncy little man"). By this point the perspicacious reader may begin to realize that Chinese are smaller than Americans.

These terse pronouncements alternate with sudden spasms of imagery that grip the author like fits of petit mal: "It will be good fun to . . . get away from this apocalyptic feeling that comes out of the square like an invisible cloud in an Orson Welles movie." Leaving aside which of Welles's films Salisbury might mean, it is "good fun" indeed to imagine how any director might project an "invisible" cloud onto a movie screen.

The narrative end of Tiananmen Diary is sheer space consumption ("filler" is not the right word, because that implies the nearness of text which is not filler). One of Salisbury's favorite stratagems is the invocation of his own celebrity. He writes that during his single extended visit to Tiananmen Square, for example, "I must have signed my name half a dozen times or more"--and the author happily writes that name yet again, for the benefit of amnesiacs--"`Harrison E. Salisbury, Tiananmen, June 3, 1989.'" Salisbury also includes numerous descriptions of himself posing for photographs. He dubs himself "one of the few" Americans in China "of any national reputation," which reputation promptly gives rise to a grandiose fantasy that he might be kidnapped and held hostage for Fang Lizhi, China's foremost dissident, who created an international stir when he sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy. And all the people in this book laugh at the author's jokes.

When this first tactic runs out of gas, Salisbury turns his attentions to other celebrities he has known, yielding up thumbnail sketches of journalists (and secondhand recitations of their observations) or Chinese leaders (none of whom he meets during the thirteen days covered by Tiananmen Diary). This is usually good for a paragraph or two, and when it starts to sputter, Salisbury dips into his backlist for reminiscences of the Soviet Union under Stalin, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union after Stalin, each of which he seems to think is somehow connected with the matter at hand. By this point we generally find the author ready to launch into another meal, another call to his wife or another example of just how famous he really is.

The book goes into one final literary convulsion before it gives up: "It will be years before the bright dreams . . . will send China soaring away from the silt of the Yellow River into the clean blue waters of the sea and the endless precincts of space." One leaves Tiananmen Diary with the image of an entire country sliding into the ocean, then levitating, still propelled by "bright dreams," from the surface of the earth entirely--and, undoubtedly, gasping for air. As Harrison Salisbury might say, Poor China.