鐵凝《永遠有多遠》- “How Long Is Forever” by Tie Ning

A 2009 English publication by Tie Ning

While I have read this book in its original language – Chinese – I have found a English translation selling at Amazon.com.  It is refreshing to read the work of a China writer in Traditional Chinese because given my very limited exposure to Simplified Chinese, my reading appetite is often confined to either authors from Hong Kong or Taiwan.

During this brief period of my renewed interest in reading in my first language, I have realized and begun to internalize the subtle differences in the choice of words and phrases amongst these three different locations – China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  In terms of language readability, of course reading works of a Hong Kong writer has always been a breeze to me.  Since I was born there.  Interestingly, I often have this impression that Taiwanese books are easier to read compares to books from China.  But it doesn’t appear so.  Perhaps it is because modern Chinese does not deviate too much from the not-so-modern Chinese that I have spent many years learning in school.

Tie Ning (鐵凝), the author of this book, has come with a long list of credential.  She is the current president of the Chinese Writers Association, the first woman taking on that post.  She has published close to 60 books, some of her works are translated into multiple languages, and some of her works have won awards.

The Chinese version of “How Long Is Forever (2007)” comprises of two novellas 《對面》,《永遠有多遠》 and four novelettes 《孕婦和牛》,《馬路動作》,《玛克力手印》,《暈厥羊》 (Note: ‘novella’ and ‘novelette’ are borrowed terms to describe the relative length of the story and not the actual word count as defined given the fact that these terms are used to measure English literature, not Chinese).  The English version (2009) seems to have the two novellas – “How Long Is Forever” and “Woman Opposite” – and not the rest.

I would describe Tie Ning as a realism writer.  Her characters and stories come alive through the day-to-day routines at the minute detail – intriguing, not mundane.  To borrow one of the critics’ observations from the book’s appendix, in our recent time, it is rare to see someone writing about the good people.  Not perfect, but good.  Like the narrator’s cousin in the novella “How Long Is Forever” who has endured and taken advantage by her ailing grandma, her boyfriends who needed a place to stay, and her own brother.  In the eyes of others, she has always lost out.  But all she does is to always think of others before herself.  Or like the pregnant woman in the novelette “Pregnant Woman And Her Cow”.  The main character is worry free, often take her cow for a walk.  One day she passes by a collapsed pillar that is of heritage value to the village.  The stones are engraved with words but she is illiterate, so is her husband and her husband’s family.  What if her child in the future asks her the meaning of these words?  Quickly she borrowed a pen and a piece of paper from a group of students nearby and started – first time in her life – to write.  And she intends to consult the wise people of the village later.  Such determination!  Tie Ning’s work is almost like a celebration of the not-too-perfect lives of the common people without dwelling into death, depression, desperation, delusion, and evil deeds – themes that could be more popular in today’s world.

In the preface penned by Tie Ning, she wrote that to her, ‘novelettes’ are like scenery.  ‘Novella’, on the other hand, are like stories.  And ‘novels’ are destinies.  I am certainly looking forward to reading the next book of hers.  Perhaps a novel for a change.

PS. Why would Singapore library classifies this book under romance?  I have no clue.

Additional Info and Links: Singapore library tag is TENG, ISBN is 978-962-8958-31-3, publisher’s website is here, and you can buy the English version from Amazon.com by clicking here.

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

After Dark by Haruki Murakami – A Dark Beauty of Novelette Filled With Dualism

After reading the short story collection of “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman“, I was left with the feeling of wanting more.  The synopsis of “After Dark” (paperback 201 pages) intrigues me.  It is midnight hour when Mari sips coffee, a young musician walks in, and they have a conversation.  Later, as Mari is alone again, a girl from a love hotel walks in, and they both head to the hotel.  A Chinese prostitute is hurt badly by her client.  Meanwhile, parallel to the main story, Mari’s sister Eri is at home, sleeping so perfectly pure.  Something is subtly wrong with this picture.  The world of imagery meets with the world of reality and how these two concepts morph into something so beautifully, something so surreal, and something so dark in the ending chapter.

Each chapter begins with a clock that tells the time spinning a story that lasts from 11:56pm to 6:52am.  The main story of Mari is engaging and the side story of Eri is surreal.  I mention dualism because if carefully observed, most characters have a two-side.  The story has the light and the dark running side by side too.  The dialogues are lively and when it comes to words that describe the vision.  They are beautiful.  An excerpt as follows (the beginning chapter).

Eyes mark the shape of the city.

Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair.  In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature – or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms.  Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old.  To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm.  Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of the activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city’s moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.

The influence of the Western culture, particularly Western music and literature, continues to exhibit in Haruki Murakami’s work.  It is full of vision and sound and a worthwhile book to read if you enjoy stories that are dark and artistic.  At times, you will find yourself living inside the story, short of interacting with the characters.  Almost read like watching a short film.  For best result, start reading “After Dark” at 11:56pm – the exact time when the story begins.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami – Surreal and Beautifully Written Short Stories

I would be lying to say that I wasn’t stopped by this rather sexy book cover (which later found out that it is rather relevant to the leading story).  But there are plenty of sexy book covers out there to grab attention.  I liked the book title but was not familiar with the author’s name.  I am naturally attracted to foreign writers but shall I invest my time to read an unfamiliar author’s work and to broaden my exposure when my personal reading preference flavors depth than breadth?  I flipped the book open and started reading it, inside a library.

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy.  If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.  The two processes complement each other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure.  The green foliage of the trees casts a pleasant shade over the earth, and the wind rustles the leaves, which are sometimes dyed a brilliant gold.  Meanwhile, in the garden, buds appear on flowers, and colourful petals attract bees and butterflies, reminding us of the subtle transition from one season to the next.” – Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, vii.

I love to write and I couldn’t agree with him more.  I have attempted to write both novels and short stories and I often find myself torn between the two.  Why?  Haruki Murakami couldn’t have said it better.

I personally enjoy reading short stories; not used to in the beginning but I have grown accustomed to, and now fall in love with.  On that count, I simply cannot, for instance, get enough of Italo Calvino’s work – an Italian author who wrote lots of great short stories.

“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” is a collection of short stories written in the period of 1981 to 2005.  And they are translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin.  I can’t really pinpoint a common theme across all these 25 stories (334 pages, hardcover).  All I can say is that Haruki Murakami has a keen sense of observation at the most minute detail.  You can actually see the story as you read it.  And Haruki Murakami’s stories are mostly surreal, at times metaphoric.  I sense that some stories are inspired by certain bizarre news that most people disregard.  Some stories are written using himself as the main character so I gather that these stories relate to people in his real life and are told with a certain dose of imagination.  Some supposedly fictional characters read almost like the author himself with a changed name.  Some fictional characters are, I believe, purely fictional.

In short, there are no ordinary stories when told by Haruki Murakami, even those with plots that do not resolve into any dramatic ending.

Out of these 25 stories, some leave a deeper impression than others.  The four and a half pages long short story “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos”, for instance, is one of my favorites.  The author wrote about a man bringing his girlfriend who wanted to see a baby kangaroo to visit a zoo.  “Man-Eating Cats” started with a piece of news reporting on an old woman who died in her apartment and the hungry cats locked inside had nothing to eat but to feed on the dead body .  The story itself is nothing gross to that extend but a good metaphor that links the main character with an, perhaps, imaginary lover?  The story “Firefly” is a beautiful love story of perpetual waiting while “Chance Traveller” is an emotional story between the two estranged siblings.  “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” is a carefully crafted story that is told within a story and the last chapter “A Shinagawa Monkey” exposes our very own psychological subconciousness and identity with the help of a … talking monkey that steals name tags.

The opening chapter “Blind Willows, Sleeping Woman” may as well be a representative piece of work from the book with the same title – a statement of what Haruki Murakami’s unique style is all about, at least for this book.

Certainly, I intend to follow the rabbit hole and dig deep into what Haruki Murakami has to offer.  To end this review, I found this rather interesting dialogue between the main character – an author – and a subject of his affection.

“Writers don’t have any talents to offer.  A pianist could play you a tune.  A painter could draw you a sketch.  A magician could perform a trick or two.  There’s not much a writer can do.” – Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, 293.