Points of Origin, stories by Diao Dou, translated by Brendan O'Kane
Such is the linguistic and informational chasm between Chinese writers and most of the rest of us that a writer, even apparently one quite well-known in China, can arrive almost entirely without context. Diao Dou is, we are told in his bio, the “pen name of Diao Tiejun”, the author of five novels and five collections of short stories—the first published almost twenty years ago—and that
Diao Dou is widely regarded as one of China’s leading satirists, praised for his refusal to follow any of the numerous literary trends that often dominate the Chinese literary scene.
As far as English-language readers are concerned, Diao Dou probably qualifies as “unknown”. His first, ie only, work in English is the recently-published short-story collection Points of Origin, and there is little if any extant information about him. That someone so apparently prominent in China should be so obscure in the West says all that needs to be said about the gap that still remains between the two literary cultures.
Those who pick up Points of Origin will be in left in no doubt that Diao Dou is an accomplished satirist. His targets are the petty absurdities of bureaucratic life. One of the most accessible stories in the collection is “Squatting”, about of group of self-styled go-gooders who endeavor to influence municipal policy with concerted letter-writing campaigns. Their target is crime which, they argue, is more prevalent in the summer:
It is considerably harder to rob someone’s person in the winter, when layers of heavy clothing pile up so thickly that no sooner has one shoved the victim into a narrow alleyway or grove of trees or a tight corner, than one has to rifle through a dozen pockets in different layers of clothes — tissues in this pocket, handkerchief in that one, nothing at all in that one over there ...
The narrator goes on detailing the argument for the better part of two pages.
Things don’t work out the way they plan, so they continue writing, suggesting tweaks to the system. A nighttime curfew is invoked, but in order to soften the impact,
the three-minute siren at 8pm was to be replaced with three snippets of classical music, each one minute long, starting at 7:50pm. Specifically, at 7:50pm, there would be a minute of the Czerny études; at 7:54pm, a minute of the allegro from Chopin’s ‘Les Sylphides’; at 7:59pm another minute, this time of the famous Fate-knocking-at-the-door motif from Beethoven’s Fifth. In this way citizens would be reminded and given advance warning before the curfew, and instead of harsh sirens, the alerts would promote high art in a clear case of killing two birds with one stone.
Et cetera to the point where the population is required to move around in a squat. All this spiralling ridiculousness is delivered in a tone-perfect deadpan.
These are not, then, short stories whose main purpose is necessarily to tell stories. Diao Dou also likes to experiment with form: some “stories” are miniature bracelets of interlocking snippets. Some, in particular the title story, double back on themselves, while others are self-referential—I believe “meta” is the term de jour—with the author himself and his fictional town of Zhangji appearing.
The world may have been isolated from Diao Dou, but it is clear that he has not been isolated from it. There are references to Harry Potter and Snoopy. His satire is sometimes combined with surrealism or magic realism; the debt to Kafka is evident in the lead story “Cockroaches” and is reinforced by the large cockroach on the collection’s cover. Diao Dou even makes such literary references clear, dropping names of such other authors as Gabriel García Márquez, Flann O’Brien and William Faulkner.
Although some parts of the collection can be quite funny, even for those who don’t keep up with the vagaries of Chinese daily life, the net result is that some stories might prove challenging for those whose tastes run to more traditional fare. But the difficulties are smoothed out, as much as such things can be, by a fluent translation from Brendan O’Kane. Not being able to access the original, it is not possible to comment on the translation’s accuracy, but O’Kane gives the writer both coherence and a clear voice in English. Points of Origin is a worthy addition to the still currently patchy mosaic of what constitutes Chinese literature in English translation.