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COLUMN: CHINESE ENCOUNTERS

Updated October 14, 2018

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At the age of 31, I read widely in about four languages: English, French, Italian and Spanish. By the age of 36 I’d also read a lot in Urdu. Still, it occurs to me today that some of my favourite writings are in languages I don’t read: Arabic, Indonesian, Japanese, German, Russian. But the writers I most admired when I began to write — and, more significantly, when I chose the short story as my preferred genre — were from China. Some of these are consigned to a dusty shelf in my library. Two, however, remain beside me wherever I am.

One is Lu Xun. Born in 1881, he was an exact contemporary of India’s Munshi Premchand, whose stories I had been forced to read for my undergraduate degree. Lu Xun started his career as a medical student; he gave that up to become a writer at the age of 25. He didn’t find his fictional voice until about 1918, but then proceeded to become one of China’s most celebrated writers and an inspiration to several generations.

Among the essays, poems and memoirs he published are three slim volumes of fiction, on two of which he built his reputation. Committed to ideological reform, he uses an occasional overblown didactic passage to remind us of his motive. But his concern is for the outcast, the marginal and the merely alienated. He bears witness to educated men down on their luck, or the poorest peasant women, with even-handed compassionate detachment, using an often unnamed authorial surrogate.

When I first read his work, there was no British edition of his stories. Only in 2009 did Penguin Classics publish a volume of his complete fiction, in a fresh translation by Julia Lovell. It’s often said that a writer may be served so well (or badly, as the case may be) by a translator that what the reader encounters is the latter’s work. I discovered Lu Xun’s work at my local library, in cheap editions published by Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press, in translations by the redoubtable Yangs (Gladys and Xianyi). From the start, I knew I’d met a master.

Later, I read Lu Xun’s stories in different versions and their impact remains almost the same at twice the age I was when I first read them. Lovell’s renditions of some of my favourites reinforce this impact. In ‘The Loner’ and ‘Upstairs in the Tavern’, the familiar unnamed narrator meets a friend or a former colleague over a chance drink and hears his story. ‘The Loner’ — more intricate and sophisticated of the two — ranges over a relatively long period of the protagonist’s life, following him from shabby gentility to a job in which he feels compromised and sullied, to his early death. Leaving his funeral, the narrator hears “something breaking free: a long howl — the nocturnal howl of a wounded wolf in the wilderness, rasping with an agonised grief.” In the latter story, confined to a single meeting in the eponymous tavern, we hear the tale of a deprived young woman who dies before the second narrator can give her the velvet flowers he’s brought her, which she had longed to possess and been beaten for wanting. She leaves behind an aspiring suitor, a boatman “scraping together money for a wife — and then she went and died. ... such a pity she went and threw her life away.” Both stories are outstanding examples of the author’s evocation of wasted lives.

In ‘My Old Home’, memories of an idyllic childhood friendship are juxtaposed with the narrator’s present encounter with his friend, now grown into a fat, ruddy man burdened with children and debts. Yet he carries with him — feeling “no nostalgia or regret” on his boat ride away from his native village — an image of the child his friend once was: “a spirited little boy among the watermelons, with his silver chain.”

His concern is for the outcast, the marginal and the alienated. He bears witness to educated men down on their luck, or the poorest peasant women, with compassionate detachment.

Another favourite story, translated by Lovell as ‘In Memoriam’, is a self-reflexive lament for a love blighted by repressive social circumstances; unusually, the first-person narrator takes centre stage to castigate himself for his failures and lack of moral courage. (These fictions, soon after I read them, partly inspired my own stories of love and death.)

When Chinese fiction led me back — though years later — to reading Urdu stories, I recognised parallels in the approach of Ismat Chughtai and her slightly earlier Chinese contemporaries, including my other favourite, Xiao Hong.

Xiao Hong published prolifically in the 1930s before she died at the age of 30 in 1942. The revival of her reputation in the ’80s owes much to her translator, Howard Goldblatt. A number of other translations — I’ve also read her in French — prove that her writing was exquisite.

Xiao Hong’s favoured subjects were the peasantry and the disenfranchised — particularly women — but her real strength lay in fictionalising her memories. Arguably the best of these is her autobiographical novel, Tales of Hulan River. (Its description of the gardens and fiery skyscapes of the author’s childhood made me recall my own Karachi past and recreate it in fiction.) The narrator of her posthumously published Springtime in a Small Town mourns a cousin who languishes away in unspoken love of a relative, who probably doesn’t even notice her. It’s the kind of story that Chughtai or Khadija Mastur might also have rescued from cliché a decade or two later with similar expertise. But Xiao Hong’s particular artistry lies in interweaving the changing seasons with her heroine’s life — and death.

“In our country, spring passes by quickly. If you haven’t been out for five days, you find the trees in bud. If you don’t see the trees for another five days, they’re so green you wouldn’t recognise them. It makes you wonder: can these be the same trees I saw a few days before? And you answer yourself: Of course they are. ... Spring. What a rush it’s in. If it delays its arrival a little bit, the sunlight fades and the earth turns to stone. Trees especially can’t endure any delay. Let spring dally even briefly, and many lives are lost.”

The writer is a short story writer and novelist living in London

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 14th, 2018