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Rebirth of a Canadian Hero

It is more than three decades since nearly every Chinese could recite Mao Zedong's article: In Memory of Norman Bethune.

While memories of Bethune, or Bai Qiu'en (the Chinese transliteration of his surname), have almost faded away, even in the minds of middle-aged and old Chinese, Canadian-based Chinese writer Xue Yiwei provides readers with a reminder of the heroic Canadian doctor in one of his short stories.

The story, The Last Stage of the Journey to Paradise, was published in the fifth issue of the Guangzhou-based magazine Shucheng (Read) early last month.

The major part of the story concerns a love letter written by a doctor named White from North America, who writes the long letter in a small village on the banks of the Yellow River on March 27, 1938.

The English name White literally means the color white, which is the same meaning as Bai, Norman Bethune's surname in its Chinese form, Bai Qiu'en.

He is on his way to the Chinese Communist Party's base in Yan'an (in today's Shaanxi Province) with a team taking supplies to the Communist-ruled area. The doctor's letter is to his wife.

The narrator of the story is a man, whose father used to work as an interpreter for the doctor. The doctor gives the letter to the interpreter before his death, who after reading it decides to keep the letter rather than giving it to his superiors. The interpreter's son publishes the letter more than 60 years later.

In Xue's story, the tangled relationship between a man and woman becomes the object of blasphemy, which speaks volumes for the absurdities of life.

In the story, three people: Doctor White's commander, a nurse also from North America and a missionary from Europe have different visions of paradise. The commander's is quite political, the missionary's is religious while the nurse's is secular. Doctor White, an atheist, does not join their discussion. But he has his own paradise, which is the combination of the three.

His wife is his paradise. She is his political, religious and secular world. Writing letters to her is his last attempt to reach his own paradise and salvation, when he feels that death is approaching.

Xue says that his story is not an attempt to recreate Bethune. However, readers can easily trace the life experience of Norman Bethune in that of Doctor White: tuberculosis, the Spanish civil war, St Denis Street in Montreal, a trip to Moscow, China's War of Resistance against Japan and the fatal medical accident.

Xue lives in Montreal, the city where Norman Bethune once lived for eight years -- from 1928 to 1936. Whenever he strolled on the street where Norman Bethune used to go for a walk, he would recall that he used to be able to recite every single word of Mao Zedong's article In Memory of Norman Bethune when he was in his first year in primary school.

It was because of this that he spent two years burying himself in all the material on Bethune that he could find in the museum in Montreal, where all the letters, photos and other objects left by this doctor are kept.

From his studies Xue concluded that Doctor Norman Bethune was clearly a man of moral integrity without vulgar interests, but that he was also a man of passion.

Xue discovered that Bethune was an excellent surgeon, an inventor of medical instruments, an accomplished painter, a professional photographer, a wise prose writer, a mediocre poet, and an amateur short story writer and playwright.

There are some similarities between Bethune and the hero Doctor White Xue creates in his story. Bethune had loved writing letters from the time he was a young man and often wrote long letters.

Mao mentions in his article that Bethune had written letters to him. "This is a pretty important message, from which various aspects of this Canadian doctor can be explored," Xue said.

In the few months before his death, Doctor Bethune was becoming more and more homesick. He wanted to drink coffee and read English language newspapers. He complained that he had not seen a single English paper in more than a year. He had scheduled a trip back to Canada before the fatal blood poisoning accident, saying that he would come back to China.

The combination of Bethune's strong perceptual and rational responses to the realities of his life resulted in pain and conflict in his mind. The same contradiction exists in the life of the hero Doctor White Xue creates in his story.

Doctor White explains it is because of his love for his wife, because of the hope and desperation of this love that he chooses to join the war. He is sandwiched between hope and desperation, which are tearing him apart. The hard and turbulent life in the war is what he needs to strike a psychological balance.

He tries to sustain his hope in life by writing letters to his wife. But the more he writes, the more desperate he becomes. He supposes that he may get nearer to the truth by writing down how he feels about life and his wife, but the more he writes, the more despotic he finds language becomes, always suggesting something opposite to explain our feelings or attitudes.

The paradox lies in the fact that we are victims of our own language while we are its diehard collaborators, Xue said.

In fact, it is not important whether there is or isn't any relationship between the real Norman Bethune and the fictitious doctor. What counts is the way writer Xue uses his short story to bring back to life for the reader aspects of Doctor Bethune that have been fading away with the passage of time.

Through Xue's writing we can bring the Bethune buried in the dying stories of his struggles back to our own world where we can understand him as a man, not just as a hero.

US writer John Updike said: "History buries most men, but then exaggerates the height of those left standing."

Norman Bethune's height has not necessarily been exaggerated, but some aspects of his life had been buried.

Xue's fiction can help the reader find the Bethune behind Bethune.

(China Daily June 16, 2004)

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