sometimes witty book reviews
First published: 1995 (Chinese; this translation 2008)
Found: Syllabus of a Literature Course at Peking University
Pages/read time: 456, two nights
[edited version of a class summary]
Though the tale of Wang Qiyao is an absolutely tragic one, I did enjoy reading this book. The story line I found somewhat disturbing. Like much literature written still in the mid-1990s, the female character is put through the tortures of male protagonists and comes to a violent and unnecessary end. She is subject to the whim of both the Chinese and the imported American Hollywood image in her ambitions and thwarted by the same system when she tries to pursue them. She holds herself to unattainable standards of beauty using unrealistic timelines to fame and success. This reminded me of the work of Milan Kundera. This author revels in punishing his female subjects, criticising their perceived vices and casually discussing cruelty and violence inflicted upon them. It’s gruesome to read, and so was Wang Anyi’s work. I was stunned to discover the author of Song of Everlasting Sorrow was a woman.
Much like Kundera’s writing, however, Wang’s prose is compelling and captivating. Both authors’ redeeming feature of their writing is its beauty and precision. Wang’s descriptions are rich without being too dense or repetitive. Her attention to small details – pigeons, crumbs, the nature of gossip – is charming but also critically engaging. The translators, Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan, have rendered a fluent and coherent version of the text which I hope reflects the original Chinese accurately. I appreciate that the incidental characters, animals, even streetscapes and turns of phrase (e.g. gossip), are given as much attention by the author as the protagonist. It may seem hyperbolic, but almost any passage lifted from this books contains an eloquent and even witty situational description.
‘On the day of the Tomb-Sweeping Festival, the tattered remains of kites whipped by wind and rain presenting the spectacle of a love suicide on the rooftops.’
‘The room had a lively atmosphere, a mild, docile, and amiable temperament, a mood of expectation.’
‘A faint light lit up Deuce’s cloudy heart.’
The title is this text’s redeeming feature with regards to narrative. The provocative title of this work evokes the author’s understanding of her protagonist’s plight.* This is a captivating novel mostly for its details and descriptions. The prolonged torture of the main character is like a slow motion train crash – one can’t look away.
*I have since learned that this is the title of a famous Tang dynasty poem. So now it’s just bad-ass really, isn’t it?