Showing posts with label chinese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label chinese. Show all posts

Saturday, August 8, 2015

WITMonth Day 8 - Classics Challenge - Yu Xuanji's poetry

Yu Xuanji's The Clouds Float North - a collection of the poet's entire poetic repertoire, circa the 9th century, translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin - is a slim volume, and I'm not quite through it yet. But as inexperienced as I am in reviewing poetry (that is, as bad as I am...), I found myself lingering over a few specific lines and wanting just to share the clarity in these very old poems.

The first thing I noticed is the strange diversity of them: The Clouds Float North is an odd mishmash of flowery language, personal and shared poetry. Some poems here are clearly metaphorical, gently referencing all manner of social interactions. Others are introspective, detailing those small feelings that aren't always easy to put to words. And then there are the universal (ubiquitous) poems about nature and the flow of water or whatever. Beautiful and all, but not necessarily particularly noteworthy. I wouldn't have expected them to be noteworthy, at least.

I'm finding myself drawn much more towards the introspective poems sent to friends - tiny fragments of thoughts which have come down through the years and still fully represent humanity:
I alone feel yearning
without any limit
reciting my own poems
staring up through the pines.
 It's often the punchlines which make me pause and smile, some gentle reminder that humans haven't really changed all that much and our desires - to share our thoughts and words with loved ones - are effectively universal. Yu Xuanji's writing has that slightly transcendent quality of something otherworldly, but totally human as well. And reading her poems makes me feel warm inside, moved by more than just the flowery language or the fact that these poems have been around for far, far longer than I have. This is classic literature I probably never would have known of if not for the Women in Translation project, and I'm glad I'm getting this chance to experience it.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Nun & Sky Burial | Two minireviews

The Nun - Simonetta Agnello Hornby
This is a weird novel to review. Simonetta Agnello Hornby's The Nun (tr. Antony Shugaar) is an odd, somewhat imbalanced, generally entertaining novel that disappointed me somewhat in its ending and in little failures throughout. The writing was solid and the main character Agata was extraordinarily alive, but there was something... off about the book.

First of all, I'll note that in terms of basic readability, The Nun passes: the moment Agata is so sympathetic (despite... not actually being a sympathetic) is the moment the reader remains hooked. Because The Nun is a novel that very much tells of Agata's growth (or lack thereof), her rebellion and struggles and traumas and dreams. Agata is interesting largely because she's complex: her initial dreams are sweetly young, but there's a bitter aftertaste of her persistent stubbornness, even in areas where she could have perhaps acted differently (especially later in the book, where her motives dissolve into a strange mess of "why is this happening?").

The Nun is all about Agata: forced into a convent by her mother in a bizarre game of politics and personal spite. Both of these factors come into play throughout the book: Agata is constantly seeking approval from her mother (despite recognizing her spite), and constantly stumbling through the political mechanics of the period. The politics frame the story interestingly, but never quite pan out, and I often found myself baffled by the lightness with which Agnello Hornby treated many of these issues (that is: she did not develop them nearly enough).

Finally, the book has a series of love stories at its heart. Truthfully, none of these stories particularly worked for me, and I would have been happier with a technically "colder" book, but with the same sharpness of mind that Agata was given. Oh well.

Sky Burial - Xinran
So... Sky Burial (tr. Julia Lovell) is just a weird book. There's a level on which I absolutely understand the mass appeal (touching story, foreigner's view of a different culture, sparse language), but I also could not (could not) reconcile the genres. Was the nonfiction? Fiction? Fictionalized reality? Something else entirely?!

The story is ostensibly that of a young Chinese woman who goes to find her husband, presumed dead in Tibet. What follows is her journey through Tibet as she searches for him, getting lost multiple times and finding home with different nomads. As befits this premise, the ending is uplifting (sort of?), inspiring (ish) and meant to convey a powerful statement about love (yeah, actually).

If I sound deeply cynical, it's because I am. The story reminded me of a lot of survival stories I read as a child (specifically, Julie of the Wolves, and I'll explain further in a moment), with the same sort of saccharine appreciation of the exotic culture our narrator is suddenly cast into. As a novel of Tibet, I found myself less enlightened than confused, often wishing I had a more direct (and firsthand) narration of the experience. Xinran is writing for our narrator, who is elderly and I seriously doubt was able to remember so many extremely specific details (hence my skepticism as regards the definition of this as "fiction" versus "non"), and herself relaying a lot of secondhand information. My head hurt from all the retellings.

So why the cynicism? Ultimately, Tibetan culture is expounded upon just as much as wolf behavior was in Julie of the Wolves. Our narrator is still "The Human" and has a purpose in life that is completely separate from the "Other" nomadic group "The Human" is traveling with. It felt... wrong. Less believable, less representative.

I should point out that the book is still very interesting and informative, even if largely through native Chinese eyes. It's a fairly quick read, and probably a fair starting point for literature about Tibet (I hesitate to call it "Tibetan literature" for the obvious reasons). It's not exactly a bad book, but its memory faded somewhat unpleasantly in mind in the weeks after reading it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

WITMonth Day 11 - The Last Quarter of the Moon | Review

The first and most important thing to note in this review of Chi Zijian's The Last Quarter of the Moon (translated by Bruce Humes) is that before reading this book, I knew literally nothing about the Evenki (or Evenks), the ethnic group around which the novel is centered. This means that while I can comment on literary style, writing, characterization and indeed my own interest in the history at play, I have practically no knowledge regarding the authenticity of this story, and whether it stands as an accurate representation of the Evenki.

This is relevant because the cultural aspects were one of the things I enjoyed most about The Last Quarter of the Moon. Not necessarily the specific insights (though those were obviously interesting, particularly in comparison to other northern ethnic groups I've read about), rather the themes they represented. The book - which spans most of the 20th century - looks quite a bit at the clash between tradition and outside progress. At the novel's start, the Evenki are fairly isolated, yet as history marches on (and the Japanese invade...), familiar conflicts begin to arise. These are themes I find particularly evident in my own life, where the tug of war between modern culture and religious tradition can often have a significant real-world impact. Chi presents this issues without really answering them - truthfully, I don't think there are any clear answers, and I rather liked the more thoughtful ending she decided to go with.

From a story perspective, I viewed The Last Quarter of the Moon a bit like I viewed the children's classic Julie of the Wolves back in the day - it's a fascinating piece about a world I know nothing about, and now want to know more about. Chi does a wonderful job of showing different aspects of Evenki culture - art, writing (or lack thereof), family dynamics, social structure, religious order, and more all come into play throughout the novel. As per the disclaimer at the beginning of this review, I cannot make any claims on the authenticity of the book (or whether aspects of it are inaccurate), but I certainly found nothing to be outwardly offensive (to my untrained eye). The Evenki are neither overly glamorized nor garishly drawn, a nice change from the all-too-common "exotic" trope. It's unfamiliar and new, but it also flows fairly naturally (with a couple reindeer exceptions).

From a more technical perspective, The Last Quarter of the Moon holds up just a little less. It's a well enough written book, no awkwardly translated bits, and generally the flow is good. But for such a huge epic to be contained to relatively so few pages (~300 pages) means that the pacing is always going to be a bit off, plus there's a slight problem with character development. The cast of characters here is quite large, some with the same name and others with similar-enough names (Russian sounding names that start with a V...). It gets... confusing. I constantly had to refer myself to the family tree at the novel's start, which unfortunately only included family members and not other tribe members (which often made it more confusing).

As for the characterizations themselves, this was probably my biggest issue with the book. We spend some ninety years with our nameless narrator, yet truthfully I felt like she was simply a placeholder for most of the book. She is the lens through which we can learn about the Evenki, but as a character with her own motivations and personality, she was fairly lacking. Most of the other characters were similarly one dimensional, missing out on an opportunity for a greater emotional investment. Most had some sort of story-based relevance (one character's arc in particular was a brilliant bit of storytelling about "the greater good", but a disappointment in emotional resonance), but I felt like Chi could and should have fleshed them all out some more.

On the whole, I think this is definitely a novel worth recommending. The Last Quarter of the Moon is not a flawless piece of literature, but it's got quite a bit to it: history, culture, art, meditations on tradition, on violence, and even occasionally on gender roles. As a novel it's somewhat lacking (particularly in the characterization department...), but overall as a book I found it quite interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, May 6, 2013

When ideas within a framework fail to impress | The Garlic Ballads

Is there something about Chinese fiction that's problematic for me? Of the four Chinese novels I've read (or gave up on for very good reasons) in the past few years, ironically only the one I read in a translation into Hebrew has been any good (Chronicle of a Blood Merchant)*. Of the English translations, I couldn't finish The Fat YearsThe Dictionary of Maqiao was a slog most of the way through despite its clever structure, and now the fourth, The Garlic Ballads... I just finished Mo Yan's novel and am feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

I've been trying to finish The Garlic Ballads for weeks, actually. It's a bit like the situation I found myself in with The Fat Years - I wanted to keep reading out of sheer inertia. The Fat Years I gave up on the moment I lost a bit of momentum. I kept reading The Garlic Ballads because one thin aspect of the story seemed like it might develop further. It ultimately developed into a rather horrifying scene, but otherwise fully failed to move me.

If the eBook hadn't been returned to the library a few days ago, I would have been able to actually quote from the passages that highlighted much of what I didn't like about the book. But even without the book in front of me, I can clearly state that somewhere - either in the translation or while actually writing the novel - someone missed an important lesson on dialogue. The Garlic Ballads has a bizarre mash-up of flowery prose alongside extremely brash colloquial speech. It has nothing to do with certain characters speaking one way or another - the same character might give a very proper, stilted speech, and two pages later use slang that seems utterly out of place. Every translation from Chinese I've read - whether in Hebrew or in English - has had a very specific stiff feel to it, recognizable even across the different languages. This, coupled with the scant Chinese I know, leads me to be more lenient when it comes to translations from Chinese. But not this lenient. You lose me once the inconsistencies start.

I don't know why I didn't like The Garlic Ballads quite so much. It's not a horrible book, but I never felt like I connected with it: I didn't care about the characters, I didn't like the writing, and the plot kept feeling like some slippery ice-cube I was trying to grab inside a giant bath. I wasn't sure if Mo was winking at the readers, or at the government, or at the Western world, or what. But it felt like he was winking. Each chapter opens with a quote from the blind minstrel's "garlic ballads", where a lot of the political stuff gets jammed. It's generally a clever idea, having quotes from one of your characters framing the story (though the minstrel remains generally background until the very end), but... did it lead to anything? Did it enlighten me? Things happened, yes, and ideas were tossed around, but was there a plot? Was there character development? Was there anything?

So I end up feeling a bit like I did after The Fat Years. Namely, that Mo had a bunch of ideas, and decided to place them within a specific framework. Unlike the awful mess that was The Fat Years, The Garlic Ballads does a much better job of telling some kind of story (even if it's unclear what that story is). The gimmick here - the framing - is much more successful. The writing is also much better. But overall, I can't say that I enjoyed this book or took something significant from it. Even when reading the "difficult" scenes, I felt like an outsider who was uncomfortable, not like a character going through these events myself. I finished the book and just felt relieved to be done with it. I could now mark a V next to its title. Going through the motions... never a good indication when it comes to literature.

* This is mostly ironic because the vast majority of Chinese books are translated into Hebrew through English. I bought Chronicle of a Blood Merchant in large part to send a subtle hint to publishers that they can translate directly from the original language, and shouldn't be quite so cheap. Turns out I liked the book.