Who's Speaking Please?, by A Yi
A Yi's novel A Perfect Crime has just been published in English, in an excellent translation by Anna Holmwood. A Yi was in the UK to launch the book in May 2015, with events in Asia House, London and Leeds, where he was Writer of the Month for the Writing Chinese Book Club. Michelle Deeter travelled with him as his interpreter.
A Yi is quiet, polite and a keen observer. His powers of observation are part of what make him such a fantastic writer. Each character in his stories has a different background and totally different motivations, but each character seems genuine. He has a talent for developing characters that make the reader think ‘What will they do next?’
A Yi grew up in a very small village and wanted to move to a bigger city for most of his life. Now that he is living in Beijing, he has at least accomplished one of his dreams. Becoming a writer is a more elusive dream, however. He still hesitates to call himself a writer, preferring to say that he is ‘one who writes’. A Yi’s standards for writing are incredibly high, and he has previously said that he would only consider himself a professional if he is recognized for his writing after his death. His high standards are evident in his short stories, and all of his works are carefully crafted.
Zhongwei had been in a daze ever since he came back home. There was still a dent in the centre of the pillow. The covers had been twisted by the snake-like grip of their legs. One flip-flop was in the bathroom, and one was just outside the door—she liked to walk around barefoot. The glass of water stood on a table, half-drunk. His underwear and shirt were folded beside the bed. She’d worn them while sitting on the windowsill early that morning, after the rain, the sea breeze playing with her long hair. She came, she saw, and she consummated—this was clear from the signs scattered about the flat. But now, Zhongwei was alone, like a stupid block of wood.
An old saying floated into his head: ‘A thousand ships sailed past, but none was yours.’ He stood by the window and looked down. The view of the street was obstructed; he saw the cars appear without warning and then gradually drive out of sight. He was sure that he loved her utterly, completely, hopelessly; whenever she was away it felt like a knife was scraping against his bones.
Theirs was the kind of eternal love that transcended history, wars, science and technology.
It was only a few hours since they parted, but he still couldn’t stand the emptiness of being alone. He decided to call her. She would probably be eating, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to shout at the top of his lungs, ‘I love you! I miss you so much it hurts!’
She picked up almost immediately.
‘Hello, who’s speaking please?’ she said awkwardly.
‘Who is it?’ A man was sitting beside her.
‘Yes, I will take care of the matter you’ve asked me to take care of, but right now I’m eating with a friend. Goodbye,’ she said.
It took him a while to come back to his senses. The words filled up every space in his head: fuck, oh fuck, motherfucker. Then he thought that it might just be a misunderstanding. Maybe she was like Marguerite Gautier in The Lady of the Camellias. A courtesan, Marguerite tried to earn enough money to support herself and Armand by neglecting her poor lover and entertaining a wealthy duke. The overly sensitive Armand misunderstood her and never forgave her. She lived in agony for the rest of her life.
Was that it?
It was clearly a stupid mistake. She didn’t want to ignore the call and hurt his feelings, but she didn’t want to take the call and say anything intimate that would surprise the man she was eating with. Because what else would Zhongwei want to say at that moment except I love you? It was easy to tell from the question ‘Who is it?’ that the man was sitting quite close to her.
His heart tightened.
She was twitchy on the phone, like a rabbit trying to hide in the bushes. Nothing could be more hurtful. Zhongwei felt a deep chill. The distance between them had never been so vast.
A little later, she called back and, apologetic, explained what had happened. Zhongwei was like a gambler who had lost all his money but was still staring at the prize pool enviously, trying to think of a way to get a few chips back. He would take what he could get.