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Individuals: Flash Fiction by Lao Ma, edited by Mark Kitto

Individuals is a collection of very short short stories, so-called “flash fiction”: few if any reach 1000 words, most are quite a bit less. This 180-page book contains more than 50 distinct stories. The author Lao Ma, the pen name of Ma Junjie, has a day job as Professor of Literature at People’s University (Renmin Daixue) in Beijing.

Individuals: Flash Fiction by Lao Ma, edited by Mark Kitto
Individuals: Flash Fiction, Lao Ma, Mark Kitto (ed.), Li Qinsheng and Li Ping (trans.) (Make-Do Publishing, October 2013)

Since so little of this sort of thing makes it into English, the book would be worth picking up for its novelty value alone. It helps, however, Individuals is very readable, that a number of the stories are rather good, and that all seem to have been ably translated by Li Qisheng and Li Ping.

Ma seems to have taken to heart the common admonition to write what you know: the vast majority of the stories take place in an academic environment. The subjects include the foibles of professors, the venality of administrators, the fecklessness of students and the silliness of conferences. The jacket blurb calls these “the hypocrisies and ironies of life in China”, but I imagine academics anywhere will find these vignettes all too familiar. Culture may not be universal, but if Individuals is anything to go by, academia is.

Most pieces are gently humorous if often ironic or sarcastic, but aren’t “hilarious” as Chinese novelist Yan Lianke puts it in his preface; perhaps we have different senses of humor. Some parts, however, are really quite funny. In “English Corner” about a place where students are supposed to speak English to one another:

 

A student called Zhou met a student from his home village who taught him the line: “He isn’t heaven, he’s my brother.” This equates to our own saying: “Brotherly affection is as deep as the sea.”

 

In another story, a social misfit is being beaten up for, among other things, forcing himself on a secretary.

 

“Don’t waste your energy on him,” I said. “He’s a poet.” ...

 

“A poet? You should have told us earlier. We thought he was a scoundrel. Had we known he’s only a poet, we wouldn’t have paid the slightest attention to him.”

 

A story that will strike a particular chord in, at least, Hong Kong is one called “Training”:

 

... there is a street where various “training schools” have established themselves. They include, for example, the “Harvard Business School”, an “Oxford School”, the “Tokyo Veterinary College” and even a “United Nations Global Etiquette Training College”.

 

The most popular course

 

was “Key Skills for Displaying Wealth”. It taught people how to show off how wealthy they were, to act ostentatious and brag about it.

* * *

These very short stories may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For me, a “story” should have a bit of a plot and some characterization. Whether all of the pieces in Individuals are “stories”, therefore, is a bit of a matter of definition. Quite a few are what one might describe as situational anecdotes with a moral: think Aesop’s Fables transported to the Senior Common Room.

The style, both of writing and, it seems to me, construction, seems slightly and interestingly old-fashioned, manifested in the attention paid to petty officialdom, the naming of characters by their titles (Ms., Professor, etc.) and especially the sometimes somewhat anti-climactic endings. Some of this might be a function of translation but I suspect it is the result of Ma’s professional interest in literature. The result happily reinforces the tone of irony, gentle or otherwise, which suffuses the prose.

The book is however marred by some less-than-perfect production: errors in punctuation, inconsistencies in layout and even some misplaced text (at least in my copy). This would be a quibble, one that I could honestly recommend that readers overlook, except that the stories—simple, short, humorous, easy-to-understand and featuring tropes that are familiar in general and to Chinese in particular—would work well, I think, in regional high-school English classes. But books used in an educational setting need to get the details right. The publisher is to be heartily commended for bringing the book out, but it deserves a second edition after some polishing up.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.