Surrealism is something of an outlier in mainstream English fiction, yet it seems to crop up with some frequency in contemporary Chinese-language literature, at least in those works that find themselves in English-translation. This penchant for surrealism can seem even more pronounced, or perhaps concentrated, in the wider Chinese world and diaspora: Dorothy Tse, Hon Lai-Chu and Dung Kai-Cheung in Hong Kong and Malaysia’s Ng Kim Chew being among the practitioners. The surrealism central to this newly-translated collection by Ho Sok Fong fits right in.
The tone is set in the lead story “The Wall”. In order to ameliorate the effects of a motorway which was coming ever closer to residential houses:
It used to be a full sixty metres away, but now had come so close we were practically run over every time we opened our back doors. One morning, a seven-year-old girl really was run over outside her back door.
The developer then builds a wall, so close however that it
blocked our back doors too, and now they opened only a little wider than the width of a foot. Wide enough for a cat, or a small dog, but too much of a squeeze for a human.
One of the residents, in a sort of adaptation, becomes thinner and thinner until she just disappears.
Lake Like a Mirror is more evidence, if more were needed, that Chinese-language literature is thriving in Southeast Asia.
Surrealism is not always to everyone’s taste, so it helps that in some stories it is applied with a lighter touch. In “Radio Drama”, a dead man’s mistress runs an illicit hair salon; time and situation are fuzzy:
I did suddenly start noticing things that I’d previously overlooked. I saw in the mirror that there was a light hanging down from the ceiling, with butterflies fluttering against its shade, attracted by the glow. Until that moment, I hadn’t even been aware of its existence. It cast a circle of light and a circle of shadow onto the floor. I was certain it hadn’t been on to start with – I must have noticed it because someone had switched it on.
The title story, “Lake Like a Mirror”, perhaps the most accessible if not also the highlight, is about a daydreamy Chinese teacher in a multi-ethnic Malaysian school:
The students had a variety of accents when they spoke English. Indian and Chinese were the most common, Malay the least. There were only four Malays in the group, and three of them stayed as quiet as shadows. The only one who didn’t was an animated boy, slight but always stylishly dressed. On hot days, he turned up in tight-fitting shirts and Capri trousers, wearing shoes with pointed toes. He gesticulated exuberantly when he spoke, making the silver bell on his charm bracelet tinkle.
She had the class read from ee cummings; the students
were happy, and their enthusiasm made her feel young. The boy read with such rhythm, almost as though he were singing. ‘I like “i like my body”,’ he said… As he read the electrifying lines, she was struck by his beauty. His eyelashes were very long, and fluttered across the pages… Notes launched from the tip of his tongue and thrilled along her spine. In places, his voice went as taut as a violin string; in others, it spread wide as an opened letter. She didn’t notice that other students were leaving the room.
She is soon called to account by administrator who is more attuned to social mores than literary onesalthough, fact-check, the problematical line seems in fact from a different poem.:
‘Students tell me you’ve been promoting homosexuality in your seminars?’ he said. ‘And that you made a Muslim student read a homosexual poem out loud?’
Chinese and Malays do not always entirely get along in Malaysia and ethno-religious tension evident in “Lake Like a Mirror” is given fuller play in a couple of other stories which invoke Malay Islam more directly. “Aminah” is a story in which the eponymous protagonist’s desire to renounce Islam was rejected by the Syariah Court; she is committed to an institution, where she sleepwalks nude and is a constant source of exasperation and frustration to the warders who cannot comprehend why she won’t, as it were, see the light.
Lake Like a Mirror is more evidence, if more were needed, that Chinese-language literature is thriving in Southeast Asia. Ho writes free from the censorship that prevails in mainland China but also behind a linguistic veil that must to at least some extent shield her from the petty tyrannies that can sometimes be imposed by English and the internationalism that comes with it, a veil that is only drawn back for us readers by the efforts of her able translator Natascha Bruce.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↩||although, fact-check, the problematical line seems in fact from a different poem.|