Recently, Greg at The New Dork Review of Books wrote a post about setting as a character in fiction. The gist of his great post was that the physical locale of a novel can actually drive readers to pick up a book more than the genre/plot/characters/etc. For Greg, it’s Florence, Israel, and New York City. For me, it’s China. Living here as long as I have, I just thirst for representations which might help me to better understand this fascinating, frustrating nation.
Recently, I’ve been reading a collection of short stories by Li Yiyun called Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. It’s a wonderful collection full of striking prose and fascinating characters. It’s also an incredibly sobering read. The stories force the reader to confront the impenetrable loneliness with which Li’s characters are burdened: a single, middle aged man taking care of his mother as her mind slowly deteriorates; an elderly widower grasping for some final measure of relevance by befriending young women with husbands in prison; a young man convinced that his virile father has been sleeping with his wife.
These are not stories which exude optimism and hope.
Reading them, I started thinking back on other Chinese literature I’ve read – Ha Jin, Ma Jian, Gao Xingjian, Mo Yan. I realized that these themes of loneliness and isolation are themes which runs deep through much of contemporary Chinese literature. In Ma Jians brilliant Beijing Coma, the narrator is literally isolated from the world, physically comatose, as he watches a society in flux swirl around him. Ha Jin’s The Crazed has a student become increasingly isolated as he listens to the semi-coherent and sometimes profound rantings of his stroke-ridden professor. Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain has a young man on a self-imposed exile into the wilds of Western China, searching for some sort of meaning and coherence in his, and his nation’s, existence.
Tragedy breeds loneliness and China has had more than its fair share of both. For most people from the West, it’s almost impossible to even begin to comprehend the sustained tragedy which is Chinese history. It’s not surprising, then, that Chinese literature is rife with pain and isolation. Literature is an focused examination of humanity and, in China’s case, this examination, more often than not, leads to very dark places. It’s for this reason that Chinese literature is so compelling – it humanizes a despair which is incomprehensible in its enormity.
Living in China today, at least in the big cities with the McDonald’s and skyscrapers and luxury hotels, it’s easy to forget that an almost unimaginable tragedy lies not far in the past and, for many, still continues. Chinese literature cuts through the glitz of contemporary China to remind people that this economic miracle (which has undeniably improved the lives of millions) has not erased a tumultuous and painful past. For me, this is one of the deep and defining conflicts of modern China and one that is, often, best explored within the realm of fiction.