In the world of Alai, a Tibetan village in the throes of a 50-year tumultuous transformation is a microcosm of rural China at large.
"The protagonist of my novel is the village, not a person, and this village is broken and unstable, with an array of people on center stage at various times," says Alai, author of the six-volume Hollow Mountain.
Over the weekend, Alai won the title of "Outstanding Author of 2008" from the Media Award for Chinese Language Literature. Last year, he published the last installment of his magnum opus. But the award, notes Xie Youshun, one of the judges, is more for the complete work than for the denouement.
The book's publisher calls it "six petals of a flower", referring to its unique structure, and the author himself objects to the use of word "epic". He also admits that it won't sell as well as Red Poppies. But Hollow Mountain has taken more of his energy and resources.
"I won't touch the same subject matter again. Unless China's countryside undergoes more fundamental changes than it is going through today, I don't think I can come out with something better than this."
Alai burst on the scene in 1998 with his debut novel Red Poppies, now available in English. Its original title in Chinese is The Dust Settles, and it's set in the dying days of the chieftains. The reading public began to notice this writer from the Tibetan area of northwestern Sichuan. But actually his writing career started in the 1980s, first with poetry and then shifted to fiction. "I voluntarily put myself, for a long stretch of time, into the position of an amateur writer," says Alai, now president of the Sichuan Writers Association, who has won numerous awards in the recent decade.
Both Red Poppies and Hollow Mountain are stories about Tibet. They have taken on an extra level of authenticity because the author is ethic Tibetan. But Alai downplays it, explaining that the label "puts me down". He insists that what he wrote applies not only to the Tibetan area, but also to all of rural China.