Zhang, Xianliang. Half of Man Is Woman. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.
Casablanca in the Gulag
Zhang Yonglin is a Chinese Rick -- they probably woZhang, Xianliang. Half of Man Is Woman. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.
Casablanca in the Gulag
Zhang Yonglin is a Chinese Rick -- they probably would have fought on the same side during the Spanish Revolution in 1936, if Zhang had been there. But Zhang wasn't -- he was probably only born around then. By the time he had grown up, this sort of meritocratic freedom fighting was under attack in the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Zhang had been condemned, politically, socially and every other way, and sent to the first labor camps of those days, where he remained till 1966, when our story opens.
The inciting incident of "Half of Man is Woman" is boy sees girl, "Woman needs man/And man must have his mate./ That no one can deny." Zhang Yonglin, a virgin at 39 (picture a virgin Bogart! Sheesh!) is working in the fields one day when he sees -- a naked woman! He's so unbalanced he enters an amazing crisis punched into us via Zhang Xianliang's blockish prose. It is almost a coincidence that the very same year, a new political movement known as the Great Cultural Revolution is beginning. But after all, right, "It's still the same old story/ A fight for love and glory/A case of do or die."
The conceit of the story is that Zhang is working out his ideas about what life is all about in both his relationship with the woman and with his observations on the political events in the following years, 1968-1979. Like Rick, Zhang knows in the end that it's "a case of do or die," and makes the decision that determines his marriage and his very life.
Any reader who understands this work first and foremost as a documentary of life in China is a tremendous fool. First and foremost it is a great work of fiction, a crafted expression of a life, with turning points full of the interior thoughts of a man, including doubts, fears, desires and weaknesses. It probes just what would make a thinking man live through a dark night of turmoil that might last for decades, leaving a deep, national version of Stockholm's syndrome on the psyche. China here is the setting, no more.
Zhang's language throughout the book reminds me that story is about plot and character structure, not language. Zhang Yonglin, his girl, and the supporting cast with a wide range of fascinating subplots is a good story, but it is seldom a well-written one. It is crafted, but in a garish, earthy style that is often repugnant. Martha Avery would be sublime translating "Baotown" just after this, but writing in 1986-7 she seems certain of Zhang's importance as a story craftsman and yet unable to handle his clunky dialogue, flat jokes, and purplish landscape description, all of which feed into an terribly negative perspective on life that perhaps can't help but be enigmatic to the English reader. A debased pessimism pervades the work; the dialogic language is ponderous with black humor, with a scathing need to see the worst of everything. Avery has clearly understood the need to render this in English, but only hints are ever really visible.
I won't read this whole volume in Chinese, most likely, but you better believe I'm going to turn here when I want to practice the Chinese equivalent of "snark."
"I knew that this novel, which records my youth and that of others of my generation, would only reveal its true meaning and value with the passage of"I knew that this novel, which records my youth and that of others of my generation, would only reveal its true meaning and value with the passage of time."
OK stop right there. I'm wary of the contemporary 'book' (I'm not going to call it a novel, because I demand a story structure for that) that thinks it can simply photograph in writing the way the author and her friends live, day to day, and call that a novel. I'm wary and weary of writing that calls attention to the author in the first few sentences -- if you can't give us some 'why' other than 'It's me!' in those first few sentences, well, increasingly I will put the book down. Lastly, I am now officially suspicious of any claims to represent "a generation." Clearly, what Chun Sue really means is not a "generation" but a group of middle- and upper-class urban kids, and not even most of those, but the ones who get into sex and rock'n'roll. And not even most of those -- just the real losers who can't even practice, and don't even seem to enjoy fucking. No doubt this is still a large portion of Beijing teenagers, but it hardly counts as a 'generation.'
Chun Sue's protagonist, Chun Sue, is mildly interested in writing. She is ever curious about boys. She is bold enough to speak rudely to her parents. She finds high school to be alienating, constricting, and unfair. She's doing her best to figure herself out, and the occasional boy.
Other than that, she seems have little curiosity for the outside world. And this story reflects that: it has little crisis, only one monotonous conflict (teenage girl self vs. teenage girl self, dontcha know), and, oddly, no climax that I can see. Was it her relationship with Mint, or G.? Was it that decision to quit school again after quitting before and going back? Was it deliberate not to have a final moment of growth, to leave her in this late teenager state of being?
What worries me the most is, why did Howard Goldblatt do this piffle? What was he thinking as he plodded through all this stuff? The only thing I can think is that the 70-year-old dean of Chinese-to-English novel translations wants to expand his range to cover it all, and leaped at a work that seemed to 'speak for the new generation.' I hope he wasn't one of those aggravating readers who take Chun Sue's alienation as further evidence of the distinctive changes taking place in China. Bull. shit. If that's the case, then my kid sister's life in San Antonio is evidence of the distinctive changes taking place in China. ...more
I had hoped to savage this book, as B.R. Myers has done, but I was absorbed by Walter, Richard, Joey...and Patty. Patty is a new kind of hero for me,I had hoped to savage this book, as B.R. Myers has done, but I was absorbed by Walter, Richard, Joey...and Patty. Patty is a new kind of hero for me, the person who transcends exceptionalism and self-absorption slowly, but uses her mastery to good in the end.
Lots of political content in this book reflects how in America today, intensity of political opinion is inversely proportional to personal fulfillment. To all you on the far right and the far left: you need to get laid or something. ...more
(Though I'm not finished...) Parts I-III of this book develop the setting, introducing the protagonist, a boy named Raffael Cody Semmes who learns to(Though I'm not finished...) Parts I-III of this book develop the setting, introducing the protagonist, a boy named Raffael Cody Semmes who learns to love nature. These are most interesting because Wilson writes of growing up in the South with the eye of a biologist. The character traits of Raff and his friends and family are distinctly human and recognizable, and yet smack of a phenotype listing. Alabama, with its long history centered on class and privilege and the event of the Civil War, is an ecosystem. The coldness with which Wilson sometimes treats his subjects is calculated, formally shaky at times, and really doesn't take off until the portrait of Raff's parents's marriage appears. (Perhaps I'll include examples when I get the book back.)
Part IV, which I have not finished, is called the "Anthill Chronicles," and takes much the reverse tack. The anthills which the boy Raff learns to observe with such sensitivity in parts I-III now take center stage. We witness the travails of the venerable "Trailhead colony," the ambitious "Streamside Colony," and the genetically mutated, awesomely powerful "Supercolony." Professor Wilson seems to pack all the experimental results of his research into ant colonies, particularly on their mode of communication via pheromones, into the narrative. And yet, the narrative remains a deeply attractive adventure that is difficult to put down. The significance of this mode of fictional expression of environmental consciousness is something I will be wrapping my mind around for months and years to come. No wonder the book, a first novel by a very old man, won the Pulitzer Prize!...more
From our yard, I could see the cemetery. I did not know it was the cemetery until one day, when I said to my mother that sometimes in the evening, whi
From our yard, I could see the cemetery. I did not know it was the cemetery until one day, when I said to my mother that sometimes in the evening, while feeding the pig, I could see various small, stick-like figures, some of them dressed in black, some dressed in white, bobbing up and down in the distance. I noticed, too, that sometimes the black-and-white stick-like figures appeared in the morning. My mother said that it was probably a child being buried, since children were always buried in the morning. Until then, I had not known that children died
All children learn about death, and all children learn to be both curious and frightened at once. For Annie John, curiosity drives visits to the funerals of strangers. Pretty strange for a 10-year-old girl! She fears death too, and this fear is already in the first chapter located at her mother, in her voice, her hands, and even her mother's scent. Mother, daughter, death: trouble ahead.
I haven't actually started this novel yet per se, but I was quite moved by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's reading of the first chapter on the New Yorker fiction podcast -- the novel actually grew from a short story. I hadn't thought of that approach to novel before. ...more
Artistic talent is far more common than the talent to nurture artistic talent. Any parent with a hard hand can crush it, but to nurture it is much mor
Artistic talent is far more common than the talent to nurture artistic talent. Any parent with a hard hand can crush it, but to nurture it is much more difficult. That’s a talent you have, and in much greater supply than the one that drove this.
Home is watching the moon rise over the open, sleeping land and having someone you can call to the window, so you can look together. Home is where you dance with others, and dancing is life.
There’s nothing so fascinating as a family argument, I think Leo Tolstoy said that. Or maybe it was Jonathan Franzen.
Keep it simple, stupid.
Can I really be thinking of risking the world—perhaps reality itself—for the woman I love? That makes Lee [Harvey Oswald]’s insanity look piddling