Michael LaPointe at the LA Review of Books:
IN EARLY DECEMBER, Beijing issued its first-ever red alert for air pollution. Hazardous airborne particles had risen to nearly 15 times what the World Health Organization deems safe. Schools closed, and half of all cars had to stay off the road — odd-numbered license plates one day, even-numbered the next. The Beijing Times called it “airpocalypse.”
Some dozen years before, László Stein, a renowned Hungarian poet, fell asleep in Beijing’s Guangji Temple. He dreamt that he was joined by the master calligrapher Tang Xiaodu, to whom he put a desperate question. Stein, he explained, had been coming to China for years in search of its classical culture, and though he’d never found it, he’d been consoled just thinking that “the sky that clouded above him was the same sky that clouded above Li Taibai and all of Chinese classical poetry, and all of Chinese tradition.” Now he had to ask the master: “Are the heavens here above them really the same?” Tang Xiaodu took a long time to reply. “No,” he finally said, “these are not the same heavens any more.”
Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, a book of quasi-fictional reportage by László Krasznahorkai (who styles himself the poet Stein throughout), is a travelogue under modern China’s apocalyptic sky. The book, which many will find controversial, details Stein’s pilgrimage in search of the authentic current of Chinese tradition, a search that leads him to denounce the country’s so-called economic miracle as a general collapse.