Tyl starts the story of his unique Shanghai childhood, as the child of a German diplomat, with the disjointed, dream-like memories of a very young child and wisely refuses to colour those precious memories with hindsight and an adult perspective. As Tyl matures we are given more contexts as he begins to understand more of his world. However, this theme runs strongly throughout the book: to accept the immutable nature of the past and to resist the urge to comment from the comfort of the present.
Perhaps this acceptance is a result of Tyl’s cultural flexibility, a chameleon survival skill learned from a very young age which is comically portrayed in the book by his flag collection which he flies according to whoever is in power at the time in turbulent Shanghai.
This is a brave story in so many ways: Tyl portrays his world and its characters with their good and bad enmeshed and, true to form, declines to judge. In fact, his survival sometimes depended on good deeds done by rather dubious characters.
It must be difficult to unlock the secrets of the past and even harder to put them in print for others to share and comment on. I am very glad that Tyl felt able to do this, as I loved this book. This is a story not often told: Shanghai from the perspective of a child who spoke several languages and identified with several cultures, who accepts that the past was good and bad and unchangeable.
Title: Red dust over Shanghai
Author: Tyl von Randow.
Reviewed by Monica F, Waitakere Central Library, Henderson.
Monica F is happiest in gumboots and apron, attending to her animals, harvesting her crops and making stuff. Like all truly wholesome people, she has a dark side, and enjoys nothing better than well written true crime and forensic medicine.