Thursday, 7 February 2008

Selected Stories of Shen Congwen was first translated into English by Jeffrey K. Kinkley for University of Hawai'i Press in 1995.

The date is significant, he says in his introduction. He works in the Department of History at St John's University, New York. To say that Shen's "road was not easy" is to point at how significant, in fact, the date is.

The literary scene during his creative heyday, 1924-1948, was querulous and faction-ridden, but despite ideological rifts, most authors back then were fairly civil with each other, and friendships often crossed ideological divides.

But during the revolution Shen's reputation was 'eclipsed' and his works "virtually banned in China" for 40 years. The writer gave up trying to make a living from his craft and studied museology, first as "a mere docent". He catalogued items and did tours of the museum.

"During the Cultural Revolution, his house was raided by Red Guards, and he was sent down to the countryside, but his hardship was less than that of many other intellectuals." As a 'dead tiger', however, he posed no threat to the Party. Even in the early 1980s, many students had never heard his name.

Even in Taiwan his works were banned officially because he did not go to the island with the Nationalists in 1949. The situation changed, apparently, in the 1980s.

In both markets, his books began to be read again. Kinkley avers that a Nobel was in the offing but unfortunately the writer died in 1988. It is significant that the current publisher (The Chinese University Press) "was established in 1977 as the publishing house of The Chinese University of Hong Kong".

The press aims to add "five to six titles" to its list each year.

I won't quote from Kinkley's analysis of the stories in this fabulous book. He is, after all, an historian, not a literature scholar. His concepts are very stale and block-like. What we do have in common, however, is a deep admiration for this subtle writer. The writer who most closely resembles him, I guess, is Chekhov.

This is partly because of the bucolic themes. But also it is due to the very dry-eyed gaze. In both authors' work this clear vision is powerful because married to a soft heart.

A heart that remembers.

The historical period touched on in the stories is clear due to Western cognates used (tung oil is harvested by rich landowners and sold to Westerners who use it to make anti-fouling paint for warships; in another story there's talk of a magnificent fountain pen).

The ambience is distinctly Chinese, as is the cruelty (a woman a clan head dislikes is first raped by a mob then pushed over the side of a dinghy with a millstone around her neck).

The class situation is also medieval. A government official (hujia) virtually rules his town single-handledly, handing out favours to cronies and taking multiple girls into his house as concubines. The rich live in heaven while the poor rely on what is dropped off the edge of that favoured locus.

Basta! with the political and economic discourse, though. Here, the magic is in the way Shen carries the narration across time -- effortlessly -- and gathers his favoured sons and daughters to his bosom in the motion.

Of particular note is Sansan, about an ignorant (but rich) country girl who becomes the object of interest of a sick city-dweller come to the countryside to recover (probably from tuberculosis). At first she is dismissive, but the existence of his desiring gaze impacts on her psyche until, at the end, she is a partner in the dance of love.

Also extremely good is The Husband. His wife works as a prostitute and he lives off her earnings until, at some point, the burden of shame and regret overpowers him. As in the case of Sansan, the denouement is delayed. Everything resolves itself in the final paragraph, until which point the outcome of the story is quite invisible to the reader.

This effect -- of a car racing toward an immovable object and swerving to miss it at precisely the final possible moment -- is delightful. It's surely a rare gift that Shen commands here.

Finally, Qiaoxiu and Dingsheng offers a superb, postmodern approach to an old story (old in China, I suspect). The relationship between the two characters whose names appear in the title, is tenuous. The presence of the narrator in the story as a character gives the story a very contemporary feel, and his musings go a long way toward resolving the meanings of the two intertwined stories that centre on the young woman and the young man.

Without doubt, Shen is the best Chinese writer I've read. Even better than Gao Xingjian.

Superb. Superb. Hooray for Hunan!

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