Think for a moment of the most wretched, filthy, and decrepit slum you’ve ever seen. Hopefully, what you’re thinking of is someplace that you’ve never had the misfortune to experience personally, but perhaps someplace you’ve seen in a news broadcast from some forgotten corner of the world. Picture the slumping, rotting buildings. The piles of festering garbage. Rivers of human excrement flowing away from open latrines. Dead dogs, pigs, and the occasional human body swarming with flies on the side of the road.
Now, imagine this place as it might appear in Salvador Dali’s darkest nightmare.
Mushrooms sprout instantaneously from beneath moldy quilts. Human ears rot and fall off overnight. Torrential rains of dead fish and rats fall from the sky. Moths as big as bats hide under the eaves of the latrine until they take flight with a mournful whistle. A man, upon feeling a strange itch on his back, removes his jacket to find that the lining has been completely replaced with a writhing mass of worms.
Welcome to Yellow Mud Street.
In Can Xue’s novella, the people of Yellow Mud Street not only live in an unrelenting nightmare of filth and decrepitude, but also in a constant state of paranoia and uncertainty. A man disappears and no one is quite sure whether he ever actually existed. Government officials come from the city to investigate, although the subject of their investigation is ambiguous. Schemes and plots are hatched, although its unclear who is scheming and who is being schemed against. One character is absolutely certain that, whatever the problem may be, there is a “yellow weasel” responsible.
In describing a piece of writing such as this, terms such as “like” and “dislike” tend to lose any real meaning. There were long passages of the story that literally disgusted me.
When the sun is up, everything goes rotten, everywhere. The vegetable mound in front of the market steamed in the sun. Its yellow drainage ran to the corner of the street. Every household hung last year’s rotten fish and meat in the sun. White maggots crawled all over. Tap water had become undrinkable also. It was said that a decomposing corpse had blocked the pump. For days, people had been drinking corpse water….Stinking water oozed from the aged putrid ulcers on their shanks.
This is one of the tamer passages, one that doesn’t deal explicitly with human excrement or other fluids that seep from dead things.
Yet, in between, there are jarring moments of near hilarity. When a mob shows up at Director Wang’s home demanding to know what he thinks of the rumors that the street may be relocated, they converse back and forth for a few minutes before the following happens.
Director Wang furrowed his brow. Suddenly, he lit up. “The fundamental reason is, comrades, I remember something!” The thing he remembered was that he had only his underwear on.
Absurd, but extremely funny.
Like a dream, the story jumps from one image to another, juxtaposing the horrific with the absurd, the comical with the tragic, and the abstract with the concrete. It’s a jarring experience, but one that works within the twisted confines of the narrative. And, like a dream, the reader is often left wondering what just happened upon putting the book down.
I can’t say that I’ll be clamoring for more of Can Xue’s stories (the titular novella of this collection will have to wait), but I also can’t say that I will never read her work again. It was strangely hypnotic being sucked into this nightmarish rendering of a small Chinese village. And, despite the horrible imagery of the previous 180 pages, the story does close with the slightest whisper of hope, a whisper that seems to suggest that even the worst nightmares end with the rising sun.