Whether Jeremy Tiang chooses the books to translate or the books choose him, his name on the cover nigh guarantees that the novel is extremely good, remarkable or, in the case of Zhang Yueran’s Cocoon, a triumph.
Li Jiaqi is called back to the family “mansion” in Jinan, the capital of Shandong, to care for her dying grandfather, both iron-willed patriarch and, in his day, “the most famous heart surgeon in China”. As he dies, Jiaqi reconnects with Cheng Gong, a friend from a childhood, eighteen incommunicado years distant. They are connected by a secret: Gong’s own grandfather had a nail driven into his skull by an unknown assailant during the Cultural Revolution. He didn’t die, but remained ever since in a vegetative state—“his soul is trapped”, says Gong—in Room 317 of the local hospital.
The secret is revealed slowly, and ever so intricately, over the novel’s tension-laden 300 pages. That Cocoon is a thriller—albeit a literary one—at all isn’t even immediately evident. Told mostly in flashback as a series of interlocking monologues from Jiaqi and Gong, the novel is much a story of the ongoing collision of three dysfunctional multi-generational families, riven by guilt, disappointment, drunkenness, violence, pride and unrequited love between generations and across them. Whence this dysfunction comes and why is a much more complex mystery than the identity of the assailant. Deftly and deeply plotted—one can easily see Cocoon as a mini-series on TV—the half-dozen or so main characters are complex and urgent.
The story of the nail is a true one:
The man in the vegetative state was still alive when I was born, lying in the same hospital building where I came into the world …
Zhang writes in an author’s prologue. She also hails from Jinan and the many references to the literary life indicate that much in the book is drawn from direct experience. But there’s clearly more to Cocoon than that. “No one needs this story. It’s only important to me,” she continues self-effacingly.
I was halfway through the novel when I realized my father had entered it… I don’t mean as a particular character—it was more of an undertone. Disappointment, rejection, not believing in anything. Something about my dad that had been there a long time—perhaps the thing driving us apart… Only now am I working out that this temperament wasn’t something he was born with, but a product of his era and his history.
To say that Zhang is an important voice from contemporary China and that Cocoon is an aid to understanding the effect of Chinese history on present and past generations is, while undoubtedly true, to diminish an accomplishment which transcends the specificities of time and place. Cocoon is also a salutary antidote to the idea that people in China are, by nature or nurture, in some way different. Or, one might add, even isolated:
His ex was a restless woman who’d kept wanting to leave the country. Three years ago, she’d had the chance to visit the US on a work trip, and ended up staying. The plan had been that he would leave his job to join her, but next thing he knew, she was living with an American man two decades older than her—maybe she’d fallen in love, or maybe she just wanted a green card. In any case, she asked for a divorce.
There are references to Tennessee Williams (“Like poor Blanche DuBois, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”) and F Scott Fizgerald: the Chinese reading public must be more aware of American literature than vice versa.
And then there is the writing, which can be glorious and visceral, almost poetic in its command of description and metaphor, even in the most prosaic of passages:
The large room’s thick curtains were drawn to protect the valuable photographs from light damage. A sunless room reeking of imprisonment.
Here, as elsewhere, Zhang is fortunate in her translator, who gives us in English: “The sky was dark as a bruised knee”, “her teeth were as straight as mahjong tiles” and
Blood ties are a form of violence, the way they yoke together people who feel nothing for each other…
which might serve an epigram for this extraordinary novel.