Since Beijing got the bid to host the XXIX Olympiad, China has been a hot topic for anyone with a pen, a voice, or an opinion – so I’ll admit that I picked up Patrick Brown’s Butterfly Mind: Revolution, Recovery, and One Reporter’s Road to Understanding China with a tinge of skepticism. The cover features the famous photo of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square incident, in which a man stands defiantly in the way of a People’s Liberation Army tank. Seeing it, I thought: okay, is this going to be one of those books?
Patrick Brown, a journalist for the CBC since the late 1970s, has reported on many of the last century’s major conflicts and acted as a correspondent from London, Beijing, and New Delhi. Now living in Beijing, he’s written a memoir about his struggle with alcoholism and his career reporting from the world’s war-torn regions.
Though China is one of the main focal points of Brown’s book, he claims he has never been a specialist in anything, and therefore can’t fully understand China.
On the contrary, it becomes clear that Brown has a very clear and deep understanding of the country’s culture and politics. He seems to have escaped making superficial judgments, offering the on-the-money observation: “Chinese who want to see changes in China today are not looking for another revolution. They are looking for an honest follow-up to the first one.” It’s refreshing to read an educated and informed opinion instead of another knee-jerk and one-dimensional value judgment passed by a so-called “Asia expert.”
But China aside, Butterfly Mind is mainly a memoir about Brown’s career as a war correspondent and his struggle with a lifelong alcohol addiction. The book is divided into seven chapters, each dealing with a different step in his fight with alcoholism. In each chapter, Brown takes us through the various war zones he has covered during his career, and draws parallels between his personal life, the war-torn area he is covering, and China.
Brown’s book feels like a hall of mirrors, in which every aspect of his life is echoed by ongoing events in war-torn countries. Brown sees a very strong parallel between his own self-destruction and self-destruction of various nations. In the same way, he explains that only in coming to terms with the past can a fresh start be made – both for an alcoholic and for a country like China, struggling with the task of building anew since the death of Mao.
At times, the constant mirroring between Brown’s private life and national struggles for freedom feels contrived, which is unfortunate for a book otherwise so sincere and thoughtful in its self-introspection.
I did, however, find the parallels he makes between different uprisings and crises quite interesting. Brown compares the cult of personality of Romania’s Nicolae Ceauçescu to that of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, for example, and draws links between the Taliban years in Afghanistan and the Cultural Revolution in China – both periods in those countries’ histories when the government was intent on radically changing society from the inside, refusing any outside interference.
A thoroughly engaging read, Butterfly Mind gives an insightful overview of late 20th century turmoil. Brown provides a very clear explanation of the different powers involved in every crisis, as well as a vivid picture of what it was like on the ground.
Meet Patrick Brown at Paragraphe Books (2220 McGill College) on October 26.