As soon as I learned of Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau’s impending visit to the Pointe-Claire Library (on Wednesday, February 1st), I ordered a copy of Barbarian Lost, Travels in the New China. I knew that otherwise I’d be wrestling with other eager readers over the Library’s copy for weeks and probably months to come. And because this is his first book, I wanted to have read it before meeting him.
It arrived swiftly and I dove right in. Barbarian Lost is the carefully woven narrative of a journey Sacha Trudeau undertook a decade ago, and I wonder if it isn’t also the culmination of his family’s unique relationship with the Land of the Dragon.
In the opening chapter, we learn that this trip, which he began in September 2006, was in fact just the most recent in a series of travels to the country that seems to have fascinated the Trudeau family, father and sons, for generations. Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s first visit occurred in 1949, during a period of massive disruption and political instability, and his second was made with Jacques Hébert in 1960, in the midst of Chairman Mao’s tectonic Great Leap Forward.
Several more trips would follow and I can’t help but think that it was Alexandre’s destiny to feel the pull of the ancient giant, as his first presence on Chinese soil, in 1973, occurred while he was still in his mother’s womb. He next returned in 1990 with his father and brother Justin, just months after the Tiananmen Square protests.
Watching and listening to Sacha Trudeau describe his peregrinations through China just as I was finishing his book proved to be a wonderful experience. Perhaps most unexpected is how similar his spoken and written voices are, which is astonishing, given the fact that he is a novice author (though he is an experienced and serious documentary film maker and world traveller).
Speaking without notes for well over an hour, in a hot room that was full to bursting, he was as mesmerizing as his subject. I was struck by how straightforward and genuine he is; how disarmingly candid. And how passionate.
The workings of his mind and spirit provide the map to his book. Voraciously curious and quick-thinking, Trudeau set off once again to China with the hope of finding wisdom rather than knowledge. It’s his conviction that travel is the surest way to become lost—to lose one’s prejudices. In the book, during his stay in Shanghai, he explains to Lito, a resident of the city:
“I love travelling. And I love China. […] Travelling has always been my way to know myself. China’s showing me a lot about myself and much, much more.”
Travel as a means of letting go and allowing one’s self to shed the thought patterns that stand in the way of understanding.
Beyond this, he explained to his audience at the Library that the path to wisdom lies in suffering: the broken heart, loss, bewilderment and empathy. It is, of course, the journey of life.
At the end of his odyssey in Barbarian Lost, when asked by Milton Chang, the senior editor at Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, how he planned to express his experiences in China, Trudeau responded:
“As a travel writer. An extension of the travel and filmmaking that I’ve been doing. My mission is to track glimpses, chosen moments that might reveal the grand affairs that lie beneath. Then to sew them all together into something that’s fun and easy to read.”
I think that he sells himself rather short.
The intellectual rigour of the Jesuitical training he received while at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, his seemingly limitless recall, his degree in philosophy (McGill, 1997), and his affinity for a phenomenological approach to understanding, helped develop his ability and willingness to draw together broad, often disparate and even contradictory elements, and make sense of them.
These are all reflected in Barbarian Lost, a wonderfully accessible narrative about the New China which remains, in many ways, the Middle Kingdom of ancient history:
– A country controlled by the Communist Party of China (CPC) yet somehow still a dynastic power in continuity with the past;
– A society historically prevented from expanding by great mountain ranges to the West, the steppes of Mongolia to the North, its neighbours to the South and the sea to the East, which now reaches every part of the planet through trade;
– A population constantly under pressure to feed itself and find the space and resources to thrive, now grappling with the environmental impacts of industry;
– An ancient, inward-directed culture, settled in the same place for seven thousand years and steeped in the Confucian tradition of filial piety and responsibility, now attempting to reinvent itself and to reboot—its link with history broken under Chairman Mao.
– A society imbued with a beautiful spiritual ethos steeped in ancestor worship and the values of sacrifice, whose definition of immortality is grounded in remembering those who came before and honouring what they worked for and died for, and yet, which has not instituted the rule of law.
It was impressive indeed to observe how vividly Alexandre Trudeau is able to discuss an experience which is now ten years old and how effortlessly he’s able to shift frameworks: from the history of Chinese civilization, to the specifics of life in Beijing’s disappearing hutongs, or from village life on the outskirts of Chongqing to the angst of Cantonese artists.
The author’s compassion, his emotional engagement with his subject isn’t so much expressed in his tone and language as it is by the choices he made while travelling (with the help of his brilliant interpreter Viv) and then writing, and continues to make speaking about his experiences.
I walked away from Barbarian Lost with a far more nuanced and open-minded appreciation of the New China, and it seemed appropriate, while he was graciously signing my copy of the book, to tell him that I felt that he had given me a much more contextualized and sensitive understanding of the Chinese immigrants I’ve taught French to these past eight years. I’m so grateful.
What I didn’t mention, and what I hope will please him too, is that he very clearly has all of the qualities, talents and passion of a born teacher.
In a world that of late has felt increasingly menacing, Alexandre Trudeau’s Barbarian Lost is a timely reminder that—to paraphrase the author—there is no higher aspiration than to the common good. That we all need to live by the same rules, and believe in the dignity of every person. That we do best when all of our neighbours are doing well.