In the newly-translated I Live in the Slums, her first collection of short stories in a decade, Chinese writer Can Xue invites us on a bizarre, at times whimsical, dark and unclassifiable journey exploring the terrain of and interaction with China’s urban geography. She keeps with her unique unconventional voice, as is best known in her earlier novels such as Love in the New Millennium, and Frontier.
As in her other fiction, Can Xue here leads us to imaginary bowels of human existence. Characters navigate tunnels, dark claustrophobic places, caves and sewers. Readers find themselves in a world of worlds, starting deep underground, making their sinuous way towards the celestial with much more along the way. It comes as no surprise to learn that in addition to traditional Chinese symbolism, Can Xue has avidly studied and critiqued Dante and Kafka whose influences are much in evidence in the first two stories.
The ambiguous “I” in the title sets the tone for the collection. The enigmatic opening story leaves one wondering for several pages who the narrator is. Each story disorientingly dives into a different point of view, variously that of animals, shadow people, trees, and humans: it is a shapeshifting “I” that transits along daydreams, terrors, explorations and surreal sensory experiences. It is tempting to see analogies in the rat’s labyrinthine quest for tranquillity, and metaphors in the graceful cicadas that quickly become an annoyance for humans. If the rat is a possible echo of Kafka’s cockroach, other use of animals in the narration is reminiscent of Mo Yan’s cycle of non-human reincarnation in his novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.
There is a troubling symmetry between the animal and human short stories. Can Xue obsessively questions how animals live in the slums, as well as what their life can teach humans. A magpie couple feels empathy for humans from the height (and false sense of safety) of their poplar tree:
What did my wife mean by their passion?
“You’re really getting old. Didn’t you notice that they’re consuming more and more kerosene in their oil lamps?”
“What oil lamps?”
“The ones that light their homes at night.”
Measuring the level of passion for life by the consumption of oil in the lamps? All at once, I got it. My wife was remarkable!
Most of the stories are short and read like tales or fables. They convey violence, confusion, despair and unfamiliarity. What is to be made of these kaleidoscopic adventures in the slums? The landscape remains inauspicious, either too dark, scorching hot, subject to calamities such as biblical-scale floods (with water that isn’t wet), and outbreaks of fire. Spring, whether abstract or literal, never comes: there’s no opportunity for simple beauty. The inhabitants melt in the menacing ecosystem of the slums in which characters follow their instincts and curiosity. Their entry to another world is through dreams, portals, following gatekeepers and initiators. A guide is needed for this journey, otherwise unattainable and incomprehensible. Dark twists ensue and dizzy characters can become stuck in their other worlds, the way back to the starting point closed off.
This grim outlook, one that frames an inescapable feeling of fragile immobility amid constant change, read as a possible critical take on China’s modernist march or as revealing a deeper inner existential struggle. For the rat in the opening story, there is an almost eternal recurrence of suffering: entering a new home, meeting a new family, with torturous episodes of physical and mental agony leaving the rat to look or end up in a new home and start again. Items and people vanish as quickly as they had appeared. Are they swallowed? Taken? Killed? By whom?
As a collection, I Live in the Slums appears disjointed, as nothing obvious connects the lives of the rat, magpies, cicadas and humans, except their belonging to a common space, the ambiguous and never fully defined slum. Yet Can Xue delicately weaves a fabric that ties the stories together in a disconcerted experimental style for readers better acquainted with more linear narratives. It is the overarching theme of metamorphosis that gives consistency and coherence to I Live in the Slums.
Without specific time markers, the glimpses of urban transformations provoke unease. When Woman Wang’s traditional wooden house is to give way to modern condominiums:
But Catfish Pit would soon vanish. Woman Wang thought, If Catfish Pit disappeared, Woman Wang of Catfish Pit would no longer exist; she would become Woman Wang in those tall apartment buildings. This was a big deal.
In I Live in the Slums, there are secret locations to uncover (a search for a historical and elusive swamp), and places that are multidimensional, rarely empty of either the visible or invisible. While jumping across worlds, Can Xue transcends the binary nature of reality and illusions. Vision and intuition guide characters, not only in what they see, but to discover what they perceive, and what is revealed to them. The chain of causality is frail: it is a collection of short stories dominated by absurdity and dissatisfaction.
Can Xue stays in control of her stories’ pace and flow. Though the prose is accessible and the translation smooth, I Live in the Slums may not be an easy read for those who prefer plot-driven stories to her distinct idiosyncrasy.
The pen-name “Can Xue” refers to the leftover snow. There is indeed something which remains from I Live in the Slums in its social representation of suffocating guts, something shapeless and distinctive—the mark of mesmerizing art.