A desire to love, befriend, and uncover characterize Purple Perilla, a short collection of three stories from acclaimed Chinese author Can Xue. The book offers a poetic reckoning for our present moment, while the COVID-19 crisis continues to shape our lives.
The first of the three, “An Affair” tells the story of Fay, a 36-year-old primary school teacher. One day and against apparent odds, she receives an anonymous love letter sent to her home address.
He had simply talked a little of trivial matters that they were both familiar with: the looks and personality of the bus drivers; a traditional medicine advertisement pasted on the back of each seat on the bus; the design of the curtains on the busy windows—this kind of thing. He said he didn’t expect Fay to write back, and so he didn’t include his address.
Intrigued, Fay pursues the letter’s clues in search of the man who seems to have longingly observed her during their bus commute. Her curiosity leads her to a weekend trip to the suburbs, where she eventually meets Mr Weng, a kind brick factory worker who may know Fay’s secret suitor. Fay faces the threshold of the past, present and future. Hints and details contained in the love letter unfold before Fay’s eyes and she finds herself questioning fate and free will.
The second story, “Mountain Ants”, introduces a boy’s rediscovery of his own home and surroundings. Lin Mai lives in an old mansion in the middle of a crawling city. He plays with ants in the courtyard which no longer has a gate, and encounters Mr Wu, an old beggar from nearby Ash Mountain. This Mr Wu carries a near mystical wisdom, such as is often attached to men who chose to retreat from human affairs.
These ants came down from the mountain only because of me; they don’t remember how to go back because so many years have passed. That year, the sun was so hot, and there was frequent mudslides… Lin Mai, you don’t have to do anything; you just have to remember these ants’ nests, and when you have time, go to visit them. You’ve got my smell, and so they’ll think you’re me.
The old man opens Lin Mai’s eyes and heart to the wonders around, and mostly importantly, beneath him. The ants’ nest, with the insects’ peculiar organizational skills and persistence, is a doorway between the human and animal kingdoms. Lin Mai hears that a large amusement park can be found under its humble and hidden appearance. Co-existence and the superposition of transient lives are a frequent theme in Can Xue’s writing, for instance in I Live in the Slums, her previous collection of short stories, where men, insects and birds come in contact via fantastical passages.
In the collection’s eponymous story, Chickadee meets fellow boy Nigu, who cares for his grandmother in the mountain woods. In the place where they used to meet, Chickadee observed that perilla (a plant also known as “shiso”) proliferates next to eels. Puzzled by Nigu’s otherworldly charisma, Chickadee decides to visit his new friend in his home. In Tang Village, where Nigu and his grandmother live, wolves awaken to the presence of the elder.
“Let’s go home, Chickadee.” Nigu’s voice came from up there.
I blinked, and noticed that the old wolf had disappeared. Carrying a bundle of firewood on his back, Nigu jumped down from above.
“Wolf, wolf—” I said, pointing in that direction.
“Let’s go,” Grandma pushed me from the side. She said, “Where would wolves come from in the daytime?”
As with the ants of “Mountain Ants”, we guess that wolves aren’t truly regular canines. They manifest a spirit; they establish a connecting bridge between what we perceive, what is visible, and what lies outside the range of consciousness. Can Xue interrogates strangeness in unspecified places and the human longing for otherness, connection and friendship.
Purple Perilla is about real and imaginary encounters, and follows a regression from the urban to the rural and the primitive in the stories’ settings. Humans, as in other works of Can Xue, interpret signs, meet messengers who help them develop sight and insight. Their destiny is to decipher secrets.
Published by new press Isolarii, the book is part of a recent project which, they say, seeks to revive an Venetian Renaissance tradition through subscription-based bimonthly releases. The early-modern genre of “island books” produced cultural artefacts, blending maritime travels, maps and local portraits to capture descriptions of Mediterranean islands and territories beyond, at a time of increased commercial contacts. Isolarii interprets literary culture as an archipelago. Purple Perilla is a self-contained, experimental fragment of art and the third of the Isolarii series. The format stands out (a palm-sized opus) and this care towards differentiation is a welcome originality in the publishing world.
Can Xue’s literature is here both art form and performance. These three stories went boldly from composition to translation without editing and are hence a primordial flow of imagination, an exhibition of both strength and vulnerability. Can Xue embraces unconventionality and the primacy of the first draft.
At this time of a “black swan” pandemic, filled with unknown unknowns, the voice of a unique, ebullient writer such as Can Xue unveils other—and thankfully far less dramatic—unknowns which daily surround us. There can be mystery in the banal, extraordinary in the quotidian, and Can Xue recalls in Purple Perilla a world of possible and impossible tides. We feel that certain outcomes are meant to be, and perhaps predetermination can be of consolation to the times.
A foreword from Rwandan-born writer Scholastique Mukasonga is available online, separately from Can Xue’s physical book. Mukasonga interacts with Can Xue’s words which become prompts for a physically-distanced conversation between different heritages, about daily life under lockdown, solitude and hope. “The world is confined to the rectangle of the skylight, which carves out a rectangle of impeccably blue sky, without birds, without planes, without clouds,” Mukasonga writes, capturing much of our pandemic-exacerbated anguish.