王璞《補充記憶》- “Memory Refill” – And My Reading Habit

Another Chinese book I've read

How do you choose what to read from a library or a bookstore full of books?  When it comes to English titles, these days, I have a set of authors that I keep going back to.  As for Chinese titles, it is still this whole new experience of discovery and exploration.  Quite a few I have borrowed were returned to the bookshelf the next day.  One friend once asked, “Do you finished all the books you pick?”  For English books, it is a yes.  Because I often know what I am going into.  Book reviews are everywhere in the Internet.  There is even a great book I have – The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages – to help me decide what to read next.

In 1995, Cosmos Books in Hong Kong held a writing competition, on literature.  Not romance, thriller, short stories, or popular fiction.  But on literature.  First of its kind during that era, the book publisher had put aside a budget of US$60,000 to make it happen. 《補充記憶》(a translated title by me would be “Memory Refill”) by an author I have read recently came out as 2nd runner up.  There was no worthy winner so there were two 1st runner up winners instead.  What a strange way to round up the competition.  Nonetheless, the motivation of the competition was to rekindle the passion of  literature writing in mid-90’s Hong Kong.  That gets me thinking.  If the majority of the locals say in Singapore read materials created by the West – an inevitable reality of cultural influence (or shall I say domination?) – who will be there to support the local writing industry that would create works that represent a fragment of our society?

Back to Chinese book selection and this book “Memory Refill”, I pick this book to read because it is a award winning material – however small scale the competition might be – and it is a literature, not a popular fiction.  I would still say the author’s latter work 《嘉年華會》- “Carnival (2008)” – has a higher literature value.  Having said that, those who enjoy reading the short story 《啤酒》(“Beer”) would enjoy reading 《補充記憶》(“Memory Refill”).

The main character of the novel is a forty years old doctor Jung-ji 容易 (literally means “Easy”, a comical derivation – I suppose – by her promiscuity, or I would read it as 容兒 – a phonetically sounded female name) and her twenty-odd years old patient NO who has suffered memory lost after a car accident.  Is it a blessing in disguise that one losses his or her memory?  Jung-ji ponders.  As the doctor helps the patient to regain his memory, through unconventional means that are no lacking in humor, the doctor herself recollects her painful memory that she would want to lose.  Her failed relationships (or failing as a matter of fact) and men who simply would not stay.  The story development is not linear and it is a pleasure to read, for me that is.

“Memory Refill” is not a love story.  It is a journey of a woman seeking closure to the relationships of the past.

Additional Info: Singapore library tag is WGPU and ISBN 962-950-209-7.

王璞《嘉年華會》- “Carnival”, 9 Short Stories‏

Carnival

Almost in a similar period when I appear to have given up eating meat all of a sudden, I have this sudden urge to rediscover my Chinese root.  Reality is, nothing is ‘all of a sudden’.  I have been wanting to give up eating meat for ages.  And I have been wanting to brush up on my Chinese for ages.  Reading Chinese novels is merely a first step of my long term ambition to regain my innate linguistic ability to its fullest and beyond.  I want to be able to read, understand, and pronounce 100% of the words found in a modern novel, able to write in Chinese, and able to create literature in Chinese.  After all, I believe all my friends who remain in Hong Kong are able to do all these.  I am merely playing catchup.

The joy of reading Chinese books is indescribable.  Language-wise, I am able to understand almost all the words and expressions (versus English novels).  But mere understanding is not my primary aim.  I want to be able to pronounce them as well (unlike the Western language, you can’t really pronounce a Chinese word if you don’t know the word).  And that is when modern technology helps a great deal.  I have found a site that helps me to find out how to pronounce a certain Chinese word in Cantonese.  With my mobile phone that allows me to enter traditional Chinese in handwriting mode, I can look for a word wherever and whenever I need to.

Beyond words, I believe some of you who read both English and Chinese literature would agree with me that the ‘feel’ of the two is very different.  It is the vividness of drama and sound, the emotional complexity, the culture and values, and much more that makes reading Chinese such a joyful experience.  One could take a piece of Chinese literature, translate into English, and to me, the essence is simply lost.  How could one translate the literal meaning of “scrap my eyes and see”, “rub in oil and add vinegar”, or “white as the cleanliness of jade and the clarity of ice”?  Sounds so strange when translated literally but sounds so good when read in the original language.

Back to 《嘉年華會》- one of the four Chinese books I have borrowed from the library recently, the author 王璞 is born in Hong Kong, has lived in China, and since 1989, stationed in Hong Kong.  I have deliberately chosen a Hong Kong writer because I reckon I can relate better – both in terms of the writing style as well as the locations and culture. 《嘉年華會》is a collection of short stories – 《希臘拖鞋》《嘉年華會》《收藏家》《跳房子》《悼念綠旗袍》《河邊少婦》《我的高麗同學》《啤酒》《流氓是怎樣煉成的》.  For the ease of reference, I would translate these titles to: “Greek Sandals”, “Carnival”, “Collector”, “Hopscotch”, “Mourning of the Green Chinese Dress”, “Young Woman by the River”, “My Korean Schoolmates”, “Beer”, and “Thugs are Made of This”.

Some stories such as “Carnival” and “Thugs are Made of This” are rather short, like a few pages.  “Beer” is perhaps the lengthiest of all for it takes up half a book.  If there is a common theme amongst these stories, that would be an attempt to mix the reality with illusion.  Another theme would be the loss of something.  The author would try to convince the reader something exists only to later on blur it into illusion.  Or a relationship that is well and good and then out of nowhere, a huge quarrel breaks out (that reads like watching a typical local TV drama) and the couple parts way.

In most of the stories, divorce seems to be a main topic.  I wonder why.  Relationships do not seem to work out.  In fact, nothing works out in all the short stories.  The story “Beer” is perhaps one of my favorite.  It has the depth and complexity that I enjoy reading.  The story’s main character is someone who has experienced four divorces and a childhood crush on a train that still lives vividly in her.  To chain the plots is her passion to drinking beer.  To add onto the plot is the main character’s mission to locate her missing father.  All these plots are told not in a sequential manner, but rather randomly picked as the narrator recollects her life story.  The most amazing thing is how the main character – a writer – creates and distorts the story of her childhood crush, in the form of short essays.  That creates a story within a story – an exploration of what happens when love in reality meets with love as an illusion.

I am glad that the book ends with “Thugs are Made of This”.  In just 16 pages, the author tells a story of an apartment owner from being Mr. Nice to someone rude and nasty after a series of unfortunate events.  Such quickness in plot development, what a way to end the book.  I will certainly look for more books written by 王璞.  And one quote from the book to end this entry.

即使是像我一個逆来順受的女人,也有一顆跳動的心。

Additional Info: Singapore library tag is WGPU, Cosmos Books official site, and ISBN 978-988-211-977-2