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HK edition / 2020-04 / 17 / Page018

Fascinating reads for uneasy times

By Chitralekha Basu | HK EDITION | Updated: 2020-04-17 07:27

At least two of the stories in The Book of Shanghai, an anthology of 10 short fictions by contemporary Chinese writers, published in English translation by Comma Press this week, are set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian unknown. For instance, in Suzhou River by Cai Jun (translated by Frances Nichol), a flood engulfs the iconic Bund area of Shanghai, flushing the narrator out of his second-floor apartment. Off he goes on a tumultuous ride along the all-too-familiar landscape - since turned into an intricate network of rivers - in a bathtub.

State of Trance, written by Chen Qiufan, together with "AI programs trained on deep learning of the author's style", and translated by Josh Stenberg, takes place on the last day of the Anthropocene, when "everything's ending, cognition has collapsed, all the plans to restart the mind have failed". It's an apocalyptic moment in which human beings fuse together and mutate into fearsome unearthly creatures. Savages start literally devouring books, including Precis of Confucian Economics. Cellphones and the internet are useless, no better than dinosaur fossils. In this cataclysmic world where knowledge culled from the past does not seem to matter anymore, a character is trying to return a book borrowed from the Shanghai Library. It's as if after a violent churning, time is reversing its course, trying to backtrack to the point from where it started.

Chen Qiufan's vision of a time out of joint is highly relatable, especially now, when a raging pandemic seems to have stopped the world in its tracks. "Maybe the Earth has chosen to reboot, at the cost of shutting down some redundant apps," writes Chen.

The idea of man's disconnect from real life until he is faced with the moment of reckoning also figures in Chen Danyan's Snow, but this time in a more realistic setting. Fifty something Zheng Ling shuns the company of her closest relatives, preferring to immerse herself in fiction and be moved by the emotions experienced by made-up characters. When she arrives a bit too early for her mother's New Year's party in an old neighborhood in Shanghai, instead of knocking on her door, Zheng Ling prefers to sit out the extra time in a cafe, hiding behind the pages of a novel. Luckily for her, an unexpected turn of events stirs the zest for life that lay dormant inside her into action.

Women of substance
The Book of Shanghai covers quite a range, featuring stories by much-lauded, well-established writers like Wang Anyi and Chen Danyan as well as newer voices such as Chen Qiufan, Fu Yuehui and Shen Dacheng who has borrowed her pseudonym from a popular Shanghai pastry shop. Shen's The Novelist in the Attic (translated by Jack Hargreaves), channels Franz Kafka's The Hunger Artist. Both stories examine a creative artist's place in society and how the dynamic evolves as inspiration dries up and inevitable decay sets in.

Both Teng Xiaolan's Woman Dancing Under Stars (translated by Yu Yan Chen) and The Story of Ah-ming by Wang Zhanhei (translated by Christopher MacDonald) are about protagonists who live life on their own terms, defying societal expectations of elderly women. In the first, Zhuge Wei, widowed and childless for several decades, dresses impeccably and believes in the efficacy of dancing as a deeply transformative and liberating life force. Her attempts at trying to look younger and being friendly with people - her male dance partners, for example - are misconstrued as coquettish, motivated and unbecoming of her age.

Ah-ming, who turns into an obsessive collector of scrap, spending most of her time rummaging in trash heaps, is disowned by her family and shunned by neighbors. In the end garbage bins are the only things Ah-ming is left with. They serve as her source of sustenance as well as surrogate family.

Editors Jin Li and Dai Congrong and the translators deserve to be thanked for putting together a collection of stories set in present-day Shanghai that resonate across time and cultures.


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