Howard Goldblatt has graciously allowed us to publish this essay of his on the openings of Chinese novels.
In the Beginning
"Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife."
How could anyone not want to keep reading, at least for a while, with an opening line like that?
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, and then again, as a teenage boy."
"'Sons of bitches.' Lituma felt the vomit rising in his throat. 'Kid, they really did a job on you.'"
From Melville to Tolstoy and beyond, all the way to Ha Jin, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Mario Vargas Llosa, novelists in the West have assumed that, like a flashy cover, an arresting opening line can go a long way toward starting those pages turning.
When he wrote…
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
…Nabakov knew he'd get our attention.
We don't, however, see many opening sentences of that nature in novels written in Chinese. After more than thirty years of translating Chinese novels into English, I cannot readily call to mind any I've worked on that provide a riveting, provocative, even outlandish opening. That's not to say they don't exist, or that the rules aren't changing, as cultural globalization gains momentum; it's just that a different, and equally valid, narrative strategy, a more tradition-bound beginning has been the norm in recent decades. I've often wondered what that says about the contemporary Chinese novel. Beyond that, how do expectations and standards of enjoyment or acceptance between Chinese and Western readers of fiction differ?
There are, of course, many factors that determine the mindset of writers and readers, all culturally based, tried and tested, natural. Few will deny that the concept of place in general and hometown in particular is deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche, something Americans, at least, with their frenetic mobility, find less compelling. And so, Chinese novels tend often to open with a geographical setting, sometimes in lyrical prose and at other times in a matter-of-fact style, saying "This is where what follows happened." When we read a Chinese novel, the concept of "anywhere-nowhere" seldom applies. We know early on exactly where we are, whether it's Mo Yan's Northeast Gaomi Township, Wang Shuo's Beijing, or, closer to home, the Mongolian grassland in Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem (though I must admit that "the steely gaze of a Mongolian grassland wolf" is a striking image). We have an anchor and, since the landscape of China, its realities and its myths, is well known, we are on familiar ground.
I cannot imagine anyone with close ties to China who has not heard proud references to her "five-thousand years of history." Continuity and cultural longevity, it seems to me, are the engines that drive Chinese society. And where literary writing is concerned, the phrase "wen shi bufen" (literature cannot be divorced from history) has been the operative strategy for writers, classical and modern. Time and events are measured in historical contexts. Beyond the historical novel, which is one of the most popular genres in China, even novels of manners or ideas (or politics) generally open at some historical moment and then progress along a forward-moving timeline. Flashbacks and other literary devices notwithstanding, a linear narrative dominates. So it makes sense to start with a geographical setting in a certain period and let the story unfold in "real time" fashion.
The sort of openings I've given above, on the other hand, have the effect of creating an aura of mystery, tapping into a reader's natural inquisitiveness. "Does Lin Kong get his divorce? And why does he want it in the first place?" We have to read on. And "Lo-lee-ta?" Well, you know.
Does this mean that Chinese novelists would draw more readers to their works if they launched them with more playful, more adventurous, perhaps more elliptical, even ribald images or statements? For domestic consumption, probably not. "In the beginning" beginnings are readily accepted in works that evolve within a more or less established frame of reference. And that, I'm sure, is as it should be. But once these novels stretch across linguistic borders, via translation, would foreign readers be more likely to get intrigued if the opening line of a novel were to be on the order of:
"Ma Bo-le watched as the man's head rolled all the way down to the river."