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Image: Brian Yap
The subtitle of Yu Hua’s newly translated collection of short stories, Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China, may seem like a marketing ploy to give the book an exotic appeal. It may also seem redundant: isn’t it standard for writers of fiction to explore life’s obscure realms? Natural as these reactions are, it helps to consider the biases of today's global audience. As contemporary Chinese literature has become more widely read, more often translated, and more hotly debated,the default response has been to view it through the lens of modern politics. The English-language market tends to encourage this attitude. Among Anglophone readers, the books that get the most attention are those that satirize the absurdity of a “Market-Leninist” system (Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses) or expose a bankrupt political culture (Wang Xiaofang’s The Civil Servant’s Notebook). Just as popular are sweeping, fabulist tales of the Cultural Revolution: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, a dizzying take on Chinese history narrated by a series of animals, is one of the novels that helped Mo Yan win the 2012 Nobel Prize. Hua’s “hidden” China, in contrast, is one of regular people: not allegorical caricatures or media archetypes, but men and women struggling to sort out their lives in the early years of reform.
Boy in the Twilight marks a departure from the author’s earlier bestselling work. Brothers, translated in 2009, is an epic satire of China’s extremes and a parade of larger-than-life characters. Two earlier novels, To Live and Chronicles of a Blood Merchant, trace the lives of desperate men through the Republic’s tumultuous early history—a time when everyone’s daily life was swept up in political drama. By contrast, the stories in this collection—written throughout the 1990s and translated by Allan H. Barr—deal with the treachery latent in ordinary human relationships: marriages, friendships, professional contacts, and the bonds between parents and children. Living at a time when competition, consumerism, and global youth culture challenged traditional morals,Yu’s characters find themselves caught between obsolete codes for proper behavior and novel modes of being. Some attempt to strike a balance between loyalty and personal freedom. Others struggle to maintain their identity amid the collapse of social mores. A few betray their friends or partners in a desperate attempt to find happiness. Without a reliable community, it’s easy to become a village rumor or vanish into the capital. Without the right social status, it’s tough to preserve one’s dignity. And yet these vital bonds can also be suffocating—or false.
Trust is a scarce commodity in Yu Hua’s fictional universe. “Mid-Air Collisions,” which is partly about the gulf that separates husbands from bachelors, follows a womanizer in search of comrades to defend him from the town’s cuckolds. In “Why There Was No Music,” a man named Horsie discovers a sex tape starring his wife and one of his pals. Several stories take place in a world ruled by the laws of violence. In one, a lonely fruit seller catches and tortures a petty thief. Another opens with the frightening image of a bloodthirsty man at the start of his day: “Kunshan left his house with a toothpick in one hand and a shiny kitchen cleaver in the other.” This isn’t meant to be strict realism; the style is closer to parable. But the sense of upheaval that connects each tale seems drawn from the actual flux of life.
The most effective stories depict the fragility of marriage at a time when personal success has become a countrywide obsession. In “Victory,” Lin Hong, a woman in her thirties, suspects her husband of having an affair. When she calls her husband’s friend to see if he has any clue, the sad limitations of her world are drawn into sharper focus:
“This is Lin Hong.”
“Oh, Lin Hong . . . Is Li Hanlin back now?”
“How come he’s not back yet? It’s been a while now, hasn’t it? No, it can’t be that long. I saw him three days ago. What’s he doing this time? Is he still promoting that water filter? What a scam that is! He gave me one and I tried it out. I put filtered water in one glass and water from the faucet in another glass, and I couldn’t see any difference between the two. Then I drank a mouthful from each glass and they tasted the same, too.”
Lin Hong seeks the advice of a girlfriend—one she hardly sees anymore—and the story broadens quickly into a universal dilemma. How much happiness should one expect? How much security? How much adventure? What sorts of kitchen appliances, what kind of husband? What are the boundaries of friendship, and what are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of our own pride? “Mid-Air Collisions” has a similar theme: the illusion of independence in a thoroughly modern China, with casual dating, career flexibility, and fewer obligations. “On the Bridge” features a man who abandons his girlfriend instead of proposing:
Her mouth slightly ajar, she watched as he put his hands in his pockets and walked away as if he hadn’t a care in the world. The breeze lifted his hair. His movements were so quick, even before she had time to respond he had already merged smoothly with the flow of people who had just got off work, concealing his own confusion. As he was leaving her, his whole body contracted, and when he took that step forward his legs felt as stiff as two bamboo poles, as though it had become impossible to bend at the knees. But in her eyes he was walking away as if nothing had happened.
How much happiness should one expect? How much security? How much adventure? What sorts of kitchen appliances, what kind of husband?
More often than not, the cruelty of Yu’s characters is the result of desperation. He knows how to satirize China’s preoccupation with status, but he also reveals the human cost of blind aspiration. This tragicomic blend is at work in a story called “Sweltering Summer,” which opens with a speech by a woman who plays the role of a Greek chorus:
Having a boyfriend offers many conveniences—for instance, when you want to see a movie, there’ll be someone to buy your ticket and supply you with prunes and olives—so many it will take you days to finish them. If it’s a question of going off sightseeing, then boyfriends come in even more handy, paying for food and accommodation, carrying this or that for you. . . . Sponsors, that’s the word for them.
“Sweltering Summer” is a deft parody—of materialistic women, of petty state officials, of the arbitrariness of fashion. It follows two women as they try to manipulate a government employee looking for love. It’s a world of new hairstyles, imported ties, and popular lifestyle magazines (“It was all in English, not a single Chinese character”). When considering the citizens of this new China, Yu Hua seems to feel—as Flannery O’Connor did of certain oblivious Southern types—that they might have been good if someone had been there to shoot them every minute of their lives.
• • •
The short story form is uniquely designed to capture the critical moment when a life spins out of orbit, and Yu knows how to take advantage. He has a natural inclination for the absurd and the grotesque, but even his wildest fantasies can be traced back to a collective mood of cynicism and restlessness. Having grown up under Maoism—only to witness, in his middle years, the pinnacle of state capitalism—he has learned thatpeople are easier to manipulate than most of us would hope.
But in place of cruel industrial policies or cultural propaganda, the manipulations that occur in these stories are limited to the family realm. When a man’s wife leaves him after the death of their child, his grief and bitterness turn him into an unrepentant bully. In “Appendix,” a dense and wicked fairytale in the spirit of the Brothers Grimm, two boys nearly kill their father in a bizarre act of hero-worship:
When I thought of Father’s appendix all inflamed, my heart pounded. I thought to myself: So, at last, Father’s appendix is inflamed. Now he can operate on himself, and my brother and I can hold up the big mirror.
My brother stopped when we reached the end of the alley. “We can’t go and fetch Dr. Chen, nor Dr. Wang either.”
“Why not?” I said.
“Well, look, if we find them, they’ll do an operation.”
I nodded. “Don’t you want to see Dad operate on himself?” my brother asked.
“Yes, that is what I want,” I said.
“Appendix” might be a story about the paradoxes of Chinese culture—the supposed infallibility of elders, or the mixed blessings of Western influence (the boys first learn about self-operation from a story about a British surgeon)—but it doesn’t aspire to be a polemic, and neither do any of the others. Yu cares as much about human motivation as he does about the problem of Chinese identity.
Some moments come across in English as mere sentimentalism (though the same could probably be said of reading Charles Dickens in Chinese). “Their Son” follows the struggle of parents to reason with their spoiled child, who ignores the family’s money problems by filling his ears with rock music. In the absence of any serious drama or psychological tension, the story never gains momentum. What it lacks most of all is the narrative charge that jolts the reader’s attention, a quality Yu himself has observed in the stories of Lu Xun. In one of the essays collected in China in Ten Words, Yu zeroes in on a single line from “Diary of a Madman,” one of Lu Xun’s most famous works. Early in the story, the madman senses that something is not quite right with the world: “Otherwise, why would the Zhao’s dog look at me that way?”What impresses Yu most is Lu Xun’s efficiency: “he captures a man’s lurch into insanity in just one sentence.”
Yu has this ability, too, but the psychology most appealing to him is that of a married couple. In “Why Do I Have to Get Married?” a man feeling claustrophobic in the presence of his parents decides to visit the home of a friend. From this banal premise, the story begins a swift descent into farce (the visitor is wrongly accused of having an affair with his friend’s wife), but not without capturing some essential anxieties of modern Chinese couples:
Pingping looked at her husband. He had begun to make marks on the paper with his pen. “I’ve worked it all out,” he said to her. “Our entire savings and cash on hand amount to 12,400 yuan. We each get 6,200. You take your choice of the TV or the VCR, and you can have your pick of the refrigerator and the washing machine . . .
Seeing as how they were now discussing the division of property, I thought I shouldn’t hang around. “I’ll leave you to it,” I said. “I’m off.”
As I headed for the door, Lin Meng seized me by the arm. “You can’t leave now,” he said. “You’ve ruined our marriage, and now you have to face up to your responsibilities.”
The characters in Boy in the Twilight are always facing responsibilities. An only child is responsible for the welfare of his aging parents. Husbands and wives are responsible for the other’s happiness. Friends are responsible for saving each other from foolishness and harm. These are people whose basic instincts are almost always in conflict. Quality of life is on the rise, but the problem of human desire remains, even when everyone on the block can afford a brand-new water filter.
In China, just as everywhere else, fiction can serve as an antidote to a mindless faith in cultural values. As Yu Hua puts it in one of his essays: “one can read a book by a writer of a different time, a different country, a different race, a different language, and a different culture and there encounter a sensation that is one’s very own.” The sensation Boy in the Twilight leaves is one of profound discomfort—a discomfort each of us tries to assuage by means of self-mythology. It is a difficult feeling to acknowledge, which is why we usually keep it hidden.
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