“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

午后的诗学 (lit. Afternoon Poetics)

Novel by Li Er.

2004 collection of novellas and short stories. One of six books in an excellent series called 新活力作家文丛 (Xinhuoli Zuojia Wencong), featuring young authors Ye Mi (叶弥), Hong Ke (红柯), Ai Wei (艾伟), Bi Feiyu (毕飞宇), Jing Ge (荆歌) and Li Er (李洱).

"Afternoon Poetics" is the long short story (63 pages) that gives its name to this collection. The setting is the early 1990's; the company, a group of young Chinese intellectuals who spend their afternoons smoking endless cigarettes and discussing literature, poetry and philosophy in one another's homes. The center of this movable salon is Fei Bian (a.k.a. Fabian) a pretentious but charming poet-raconteur locally famed for his affinity with words: "I prefer conversation with first-rate women, contemplation through second-rate verse and self-expression via third-rate poetry."

One of the great pleasures of reading Li Er is that his novels and stories are peppered with literary quotations, classical allusions, historical references, snippets of poetry and doggerel verse. He never lets you forget that he has done his reading, but unlike many of his contemporaries, his references are never hollow. If the narration becomes tedious (and at times, it does), you can be certain that Li Er is trying to make a point about the banality of the narrator, rather than the banality of the author. From the moment we meet Fabian, we sense that we - and the author - may soon become disenchanted with this larger-than-life, poetry-spouting character.

When Fabian incites a group of intellectuals to scribble down their epitaphs, the scene descends into absurdity, as each author attempts to outdo his fellows. Fabian cribs Dante ("Time has roots within this vessel and, within the other vessels, has its leaves.") into a poem of his own: "The empty painted pottery is full / It brims with time / The crude clay vessel is green / Time is but its leaves."