Chi Zijian’s novel The Last Quarter of the Moon was set among the Evenki reindeer-herders in remotest Heilongjiang. Her latest novel in English translation, Goodnight, Rose, has as its center the relationship between a Chinese country girl making her way in Harbin and an elderly Jewish woman who arrived, as did many, after the Russian revolution. Chi herself seems fascinated by the interaction between peoples and societies; her novels can transcend nationality and culture.
Xiao’e came to Harbin for university is a newspaper proofreader; she spent the first couple of years changing both lodgings and boyfriends. As the story opens, her more worldly journalist colleague Huang Weina sets her up with an elderly woman she had recently interviewed. She lived
in a three-storey building made from brick and wood, constructed seventy or eighty years before in the style of a Russian garden villa. It had a delightful pointy roof, an open balcony, tall narrow windows and gently sloping steps. The building stood out against its pale grey concrete jungle surroundings. It was like a fawn tiptoeing up to the edge of a lake to drink: young and clumsy, charming and playful. A café occupied the ground floor of the building, while the first and second floors provided residential housing for six families. Ji Lianna lived in a southwest-facing apartment on the second floor.
Ji Lianna, we find out soon enough, is a Russian Jew who came to Harbin and never left. She offers a room to Xiao’e for just expenses.
Up to this point, Xiao’e has been unlucky, albeit not quite disastrously so, with both men and lodging. A young woman who thinks of herself as plain, Ji Lianna shows Xiao’e how to make the most of her wardrobe; more significantly, perhaps, Xiao’e had a troubled childhood, and Ji Lianna becomes a sort of surrogate grandmother who chides and calms, and teaches Xiao’e to enjoy both the simple and sophisticated things in life. Yet both have dark, malevolent passages in their lives which haunt their presents.
Both Xiao’e and Ji Lianna are realistically and sympathetically drawn, no small feat in in Ji Lianna’s case: she is, after all, very much an anomaly, an old-world Russian Jew still in Harbin in the recent past. (She appears, unfortunately, to be entirely made up: it seems that all the Harbin Jews were gone a generation before the novel takes place. But novelists are allowed latitude.) Chi’s other characters are similar well-sketched, from the confident Huang Weina to Xiao’e’s latest boyfriend, Qi Deming, who travels with a burial shroud in his luggage. Chi is as adept at describing places as people, especially such corners of Harbin as the venerable Modern Hotel, famous for its ice cream.
Yet however realistic and natural the characters and their relationships might be, the plot does not seem to develop from them but rather occurs somewhat in parallel; the ending for example, is driven by an entirely random event. The Last Quarter of the Moon wasn’t particularly plot-driven either, so perhaps this is Chi’s modus operandi.
I could stop the review here, concluding that Chi is a Chinese writer worth watching out for.
But the prose of Goodnight, Rose, unlike that of Chi’s earlier novel translated by Bruce Hume, can feel a bit utilitarian, as in “provided residential housing”. Translator Poppy Toland seems to have plumped for immediacy: she makes use of contemporary colloquialisms such as “flaky” and even regional expressions such as “bog” (for lavatory) and has Xiao’e pun on her then boyfriend Wang Ke’s name: “if I were to marry him, that would make me Mrs Wanker.” It would be quite a coincidence if the original Chinese mapped on to that particularly British usage.
The French translation of this novel, published—as European translations are wont to be—a few years before the English version, feels painted with a different brush, at least in those patches available online. Ji Lianna is, for one small thing, given as Léna, which seems to correspond better to her ethnicity.
Goodnight, Rose is therefore a reminder that reading a translation is reading through a glass (darkly or otherwise).