Xu Xu (1908-1980) was one of the most widely read Chinese authors of the 1930s to 1960s. His popular urban gothic tales, his exotic spy fiction, and his quasi-existentialist love stories full of nostalgia and melancholy offer today’s readers an unusual glimpse into China’s turbulent twentieth century.
Comma Press’s “city anthology” series of short fiction (often in translation) has reached Shanghai. Besides the setting, these stories all follow a common theme, whether intentional or not, of loneliness and isolation.
Twins Chirri & Chirra are pedalling on their bicycles when they find a cave:
“Let’s take a look, Chirri.”
“Yes let’s go, Chirra.”
With those opening words, the twins in their matching white dresses (only a blue pocket differentiates Chirra from Chirri’s red pocket) ride their bikes into a tunnel, headlights illuminating the path ahead. They arrive under the sea. “Oh,” the rosy-cheeked twins say as they pedal in the water, surrounded by fish, coral and algae.
As it does to our lives at present, death—virulent, episodic, unbidden—haunts Yan Lianke’s memoir Three Brothers. First published in 2009, and rendered into English by translator and Sinologist Carlos Rojas, it is an elegiac homage to the people and places no longer present for Yan (at least not physically), who has spent the better part of his life oscillating (both physically and emotionally) between city and countryside in search of home.
Bertrand Russell, a philosopher possessed of a razor-sharp analytical mind, once said that he didn’t want to write about Confucius because he found the Chinese philosopher “boring”.
Presented as a confession, this first novel in English from screenwriter and Iranian exile Javad Djavahery is a deeply nostalgic tale of love and loss set against the revolution of 1979. The unnamed narrator, relating events to an unnamed companion, has some odious wrongdoing to admit. He reveals himself to be self-serving and cowardly as the story progresses. Yet such is Djavahery’s skill that the reader never entirely loses sympathy with him.
The world is perhaps changing when translations from Chinese feature as the first volume in a series of just about anything. Two Lines Press, an independent publisher based in San Francisco, has recently launched the Calico Series of translated literature. “Each Calico is a vibrant snapshot that explores one aspect of the present moment, offering the voices of previously inaccessible, highly innovative writers from around the world.” That We May Live is the first in the series and features seven stories in translation from authors in Hong Kong and China.