Two reviews of Chinese writers, by Aamer Hussein
By Nicky Harman, published
- Five Spice Street By Can Xue Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping Yale University Press, 2009
- Banished By Han Dong Translated by Nicky Harman University of Hawaii Press, 2009
Reviewed by Aamer Hussein, Pakistani short story writer and critic
When Can Xue made an appearance along with her fellow writers from Hunan in the Spring 1989 issue of English-language journal Chinese Literature, it was obvious that she was something of a curiosity. She didn’t write about the Cultural Revolution, nor was she probing into the depths of the Chinese psyche. And although her bizarre fables had a passing resemblance to folklore, they were quite dissimilar to the ‘roots’ fictions her young contemporaries were writing, with their line of descent from the pre-Revolution writers Fei Ming and Shen Congwen, lush landscapes, Buddhist-Taoist allusions, and self-conscious affinities with Marquezian magic realism.
Born in 1953, Can was a tailor by profession; she had begun to write in the early eighties, and risen to prominence almost immediately. Her fame - or infamy - was guaranteed when she published two novellas, Old Floating Cloud and Yellow Mud Street, the latter recounting the mysterious happenings in the eponymous street from a variety of perspectives and setting a precedent for much of Can’s later fiction . In the tellingly titled ‘A Weird Sister?’, his brief article about Can which accompanied her story in Chinese Literature, the short story writer He Liwei claimed that these stories by Can filled him with fear, and went on to say: 'To Can Xue, there is only one standard by which to judge a literary work, whether or not it is modernistic. The most favoured writers are Kafka, White, Kawabata, and Marquez… But anything quintessentially Chinese she finds distasteful and repulsive, and she never brings it up, a likely sign of hatred.'
That year, Dialogues in Paradise, a collection of Can’s stories, appeared in English translation, and in 1991, her two novellas. Her translator, Ronald R Jansson, who lists Borges and Virginia Woolf among her influences and discusses the difference between Can and her contemporaries - she is at ‘surreal, innovative and revolutionary’ while they are ‘flat, two-dimensional…unsophisticated and melodramatic’ by Western standards - is nevertheless at pains, in contrast with He, to locate her in the canon of Chinese literature, citing influences ranging from the classical poet Du Fu to the legendary 20th c. short story writer Lu Xun, taking in The Dream of the Red Chamber on the way.
Can, herself, was later to discard - or discount - most of the foreign influences she had been tagged with. She didn’t like Marquez or American writing. She did, however, rate Kafka and Borges highly, and oddly enough, Dante rated highly in her pantheon. She disagreed with the overly politicised interpretations Jansson gave to her work; she was only concerned with the inner life of her characters, she held, and the autonomous and alternative reality of fictional worlds. Yes, she was open to western influences, but she claimed to have replanted them in Chinese soil, and as far as native influences were concerned, she was herself Chinese, was she not? She lived there, after all, and such influences were organic.
In fact, self-proclaimed influences are always a tricky matter with artists. As the blurbs accompanying a recent exhibition of the 19th c. Japanese painter Hiroshige confirm, artists in cultures in transition borrow from others exactly what they need to affirm, underline and enrich their own innovations, rather than merely imitate. This was particularly true of China at the time Can Xue started to publish. Her fellow-writers had not only discovered the experimentalists of the west, but also their own classics, and rich local traditions of folklore and religion. The late eighties, as a consequence of this fledgling renaissance, was an interesting time for the Chinese arts in the international arena. The works of hugely gifted filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, often set in the countryside, or in the past, or both, gave visual texture to the fictions they derived from and often those fictions - for example those of Ah Ceng and Mo Yan - found their way into print in translation. The passion for root searching allowed young artists, with the pretext of looking at the horrors of the pre-Communist past, or the relics of feudal behaviour in the peasant classes, to explore human follies in a way that Socialist Realism had precluded or prohibited; moreover, they could even return to staging exotic costume dramas disguised as critiques of the old order with its decadent mandarins and concubines.
In this atmosphere, Can Xue’s literary eccentricities added more colour to the Chinese palate, both at home and abroad. But politics is most likely also an important factor in Can’s reception in the west: her first collection, Dialogues in Paradise, appeared at a time when China was in the news for all the wrong reasons: protesting students had been massacred in their numbers on Tiananmen Square, and generations brought up on the platitudes issuing from the PRC were forced, once again, to reexamine their attitudes to China, didn’t these timeless tales of repression, suspicion and horror serve as metaphors for the culture within which they were uneasily rooted?
But Can’s work, as Jansson pointed out, is open to political readings both in particular and universal ways - ‘To read Can Xue is like falling asleep over a history book and dreaming a horribly distorted version of what you’ve just read’ - which is why she is, perhaps, one of the few Chinese writers to maintain a consistent publishing profile in the west and arguably remains the most unusual of her contemporaries. It’s tempting to see her work as an enduring act of resistance - political in an abstract sense, perhaps, if she denies allegorical significance, but all the same subversive.
Five Spice Street, the most recent - and longest - of her works in translation, displays the author at her most difficult and uncompromising. All the familiar paraphernalia of her earlier work is present - the unidentified narrator’s voice echoing the multiple perspectives of a neighbourhood, the gossip, suspicions, backbiting and fantasising, the inveterate storytelling, the adulteries and furtive sexual encounters and (even more important) the recounting of them.
But here she seems to have a more overt intellectual agenda, with an attendant abatement of the painterly and almost profligate poetry of her early work. This novel’s prose - in its very lucid translation - relentlessly and endlessly parodies the discourse of Maoist and post-Maoist propaganda, with chapter headings such as ‘The Failure of Reeducation’, ‘The Rationality of the Widow’s Historical Contibution and Status’, and ‘How we Reversed the Negative and Elected Madame X Our Representative’, charting the narrative’s circuitous progress. In following its maze-like trajectory with little thought of sequential development, the novel is nevertheless ingeniously constructed, with chapters that rewrite and reexamine the premise of other chapters. It occasionally seems to be a book of philosophical theorems, or a parody of communist rhetoric and its underlying paranoia, rather than a novel, but this is probably exactly what the author intents.
However, the hook on which all Can’s speculations hangs is infuriatingly fragile. Madam X, the central figure, is an enigmatic figure whose age is a source of endless concern to her neighbours - she could be in her fifties, or in her twenties. She has a husband - but he’s probably impotent. She dispenses sexual advise, usually while ladling out peanuts in her shop. At one point, she performs a striptease which inspires two women to run naked down the street, hugging everyone they come across. She has an affair with a married man called Q - or does she? Then there’s a randy coal-maker who fixates on her, and a writer who chronicles her moves, and a widow who loathes her and tries to do her down. Madam X is presumably a blank slate on which all comers write her story or their own, but her blankness is a trial for the reader. Ultimately, when Madam X ‘Walks Towards Tomorrow’ knowing that everyone has acknowledged that she’s ‘inexpressibly wonderful’, we are left to wonder exactly what makes her so.
Can’s enigmatic novel might send readers scuttling to their bookshelves to retrieve those dusty, forgotten and reassuring works of Socialist Realism, with their homilies to the joys of production and their paeans to the goodness of human (and particularly Chinese peasant) nature, but Banished, Han Dong’s brilliant reconstruction of one family’s experiences during the ‘CultRev’, will soon cure any lingering nostalgia.
Han, born in 1961, is a celebrated poet from Nanjing, known for his dismissive attitude to the commercialisation of Chinese poetry and literature, and for his comments on the demise of the great Chinese literary tradition. This, his first (and hugely successful) novel begins deceptively, rather like a boy’s own adventure, with the advent of the Tao family - elderly grandparents, intellectual parents, and the young boy through whose perspective the story is refracted - to a village to undergo reeducation. But in spite of their travails in the village of Sanyu, their tales of endurance have a humour and a sense of survival that give the early part of the novel an oddly upbeat timbre, though its prose is cool and its approach DIY, chronicling everything from animal and plant husbandry to modes of relieving yourself modestly in rural surroundings and saving a succession of canine pets from predatory, dog-devouring neighbours. Thus, in its opening chapters, the novel seems to echo a number of Chinese and non-Chinese genres: the story of an urban family that learns from its peasant neighbours could be a root-seeking rewrite of Socialist Realism, as the peasants, whose access to education to education seems to consist merely of mouthing Maoist slogans and then absorbing their most grisly implications, are certainly not idealised in any way; it could also be read as a universal bildunsroman, or be located in the classic tradition of childrens’ writing from the west.
But it’s in the section about dogs, the fifth chapter about a third of the way into the book, that Han's deceptive and surreptitious narrative approach begins to reveal itself. While it’s probably redundant to pinpoint his classical Chinese influences, Han interrupts linearity for a circular, thematic approach at this point, which constantly returns to points of origin and yet, miraculously, remains coherent, rather in the manner of the nineteenth-century pseudo-memoir, Six Chapters of a Floating Life, which has influenced other modern narratives. As young Tao grows older, the novel’s canvas expands to include several other interwoven stories, including more familiar anecdotes of suffering during the CultRev, with random baseless accusations, rampant moral censure, and creeping paranoia. Han has to be lauded for keeping sensation and melodrama at the margins: although the younger Mrs Tao falls, for a short period, victim to the collective ailment of suspicion and censure, the Tao family by and large survives persecution, and it is illness, rather than the direct impact of politics, that consumes them one by one.
Han’s narrative strategy, too, becomes more complex as the stories unfold. An unidentified first-person narrator’s voice comes increasingly to the fore, commenting on the action and the characters, revealing itself, gradually, to be the voice of the novelist telling us the stories of the Taos and their companions. (This technique, though subdued, reminds one of Kundera; again, without pushing questions of influence, it’s interesting to remember that a Chinese translation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Can Xue’s Hunanese contemporary, renowned novelist Han Shaogong, has been current since the late 80s).
Tao Senior’s life as a writer becomes increasingly important in the novel‘s last third. After meticulously observing and annotating them, he learns to write about his village experiences for public consumption in a palatable, saccharine manner, using the tropes of Socialist Realism for his own advantage and that of his family. (In a beautifully calibrated episode, both father and son who is now also a budding writer, produce parallel, ideologically correct narratives about good poor peasants, respectively a fisherman and a duckherd, and self-seeking, though redeemable, middle peasants.) But Tao is also writing out of beliefs he has held all his life: he’s just learned while he does so that at some level there’s more to writing than ideological formulas, making his success, at least for the narrator, something of a hollow victory. We are left to assume that the increasingly detached and solitary younger Tao, who leaves the rural place of his imagination to which he’ll never return except in fantasy, will fulfill his father’s literary dreams and aspirations by becoming a different and less ideologically conditioned writer. Yet Han never gives in to the temptation to identify the younger Tao’s as the voice that interpolates its comments throughout the narrative.
In stark contrast to Can’s zany surrealism, Han, who also looks, though less obliquely, at questions of representation, belonging, collectivity versus the individual, and the location of narrative, does so with a spare and almost self-conscious realism; that the latter, while authentic, is also a literary device is conveyed beautifully in Nicky Harman’s limpid translation. Five Spice Street and Banished seemingly emerge from different worlds of sensibility, and the critic’s search for common ground between them might be merely another rhetorical device. But both novels - taken separately, or together - prove that, with its historical referents and its eclectic borrowings, is bound to giving us challenging and innovative fictions for a long time to come.