“Flock of Brown Birds” by Ge Fei

In the author’s preface to Flock of Brown Birds, Ge Fei writes of his response to those who have told him that they do not understand the work: “I don’t blame you. I’m not sure I understand it either.”

Straightforward comprehension is, however, far from the point in this slight novella. Self-consciously inspired by the work of Borges and Kafka, Flock of Blown Birds functions to some extent as obscure allegory, but most closely resembles a dream in its circular logic and narrative inconsistencies.

Flock of Brown Birds, Ge Fei (Penguin China, June 2016)
Flock of Brown Birds, Ge Fei (Penguin China, June 2016)

First published in 1989, and regarded as a key work of Chinese experimental fiction, Flock of Brown Birds is told from the first-person perspective of a character called Ge Fei, who lives alone in an area known as the “Waterside”, and is slowly completing a book inspired by the Revelations of St John. Ge Fei’s only measure of time is the flock of brown birds which fly across the sky each day:


I recall a certain doctor once saying, “Blood symbolises injury”, and by the same logic, these birds symbolise the seasons.


One day a woman named Qi arrives to visit Ge Fei, holding a portfolio of painted representations of her. Though she apparently knows the writer, he has no recollection of her, a fact she attributes to the destructive effect of his writing. Despite this, Qi spends the night with Ge Fei, as he tells her the fragmented and circular story of his first encounters with the woman who would become his wife, and who, we learn, died on their wedding night.

The story continues until late the next morning, with various retellings and seeming inconsistencies, at which point Qi leaves. Some months after this encounter, a woman whom the author identifies as Qi knocks on Ge Fei’s door to ask for some water. Despite holding an art portfolio, the woman denies being Qi, and when Ge Fei insists on seeing what her portfolio holds, she reveals a mirror.


Like the work of those authors who so clearly influenced the novel—Kafka and Borges, but also Joyce, Garcia Marquez and, to my mind, Ernst Juenger—Flock of Brown Birds interrogates the unreliability of memory and perception, exploring the disruptive effect of trauma on the human ability to extract sense from the world. It is also a book which delights in language, and the British translator Poppy Toland has rendered the novel in wonderfully evocative prose.

Though it owes much to the Western modernist tradition, the novel exemplifies the avant-garde literary movement which emerged in China in the late 1980s, and which continues to resonate in the work of preeminent Chinese writers such as Yan Lianke, Mo Yan, Yu Hua— and Ge Fei himself, who despite a long hiatus in the 1990s, continues to write, alongside teaching at Tsinghua University; his new novel Spring Breeze has just been published in China, while another novel in translation The Invisibility Cloak, will be released this autumn.

Dr Jonathan Chatwin is a British writer who has lived in, and written on, China. He is the author of Anywhere Out of the World: The Work of Bruce Chatwin.