Thursday 16 April 2020

The Book of Shanghai edited by Jin Li & Dai Congrong

We are getting used to seeing images of China focussed on the effects of the COVID_19 coronavirus pandemic and the country's response to that. So it is very refreshing to read this collection of brilliant short stories that offer different perspectives from one of the largest cities in that huge country.

Shanghai, as described in Jin Li's introduction to this book, is not only one of the major cities of China, but also arguably the literary centre of that country. Li's piece gives a fascinating potted history of developments in Shanghai based literature set against wider historical events. In introducing the selection of stories, Jin says:

'if this book is to offer a literary map of the city, it has to be a comprehensive one. A true map cannot simply mark out the landmarks, and the most popular tourist sites, it must be able to guide readers through the city’s lesser-known corners, its dimly-lit nooks and rarely-frequented crannies.
That is to say, a literary map must reveal the joys and sorrows lurking in every crevice of Shanghai life.'

The stories here, taken together, give an interesting variety of insights into Shanghai and the lives lived in that city.  Cai Jun's Suzhou River (translated by Frances Nichol), is the story that most clearly builds a picture of the physical city, which is described here as 'a giant labyrinth. The outer roads are spacious and wide, but if you come closer into the centre, over here, they are denser, narrower and windier. You can never see to the end of any street.' The story then develops into a surreal tour of the city.

Ah Fang's Lamp by Wang Anyi (translated by Helen Wang) gives a wonderful glimpse into the life of Ah Fang, a fruit vendor, with the narrator filling in the gaps of what she doesn't know about the young woman and her family. It is a lovely illustration of the casual encounters that we have every day with people we never get to know well, but how such people become part of the fabric of our every day life.

A chance encounter also forms the centre of Woman Dancing Under Stars by Teng Xiaolan (translated by Yu Yan Chen). In this engaging story a young married woman meets an older woman in a cafe and accepts the older woman's offer to teach her to dance.

The older woman in The Story of Ah Ming (Wang Zhanhei, translated by Christopher MacDonald) isn't a random stranger but the grandmother of a family who become embarassed when the old woman starts collecting rubbish. The metaphor about how we treat old people isn't subtle but the story is engaging.

Snow by Chen Danyan (translated by Paul Harris) is a vivid evocation of family life, memory and loneliness, in which Zheng Ling contemplates her life in the course of organising a family reunion. The author is very good at conveying a sense of place and atmosphere:

The early morning fog had dispersed. Between earth and sky there was nothing but snow falling continuously. She thought of the courtyard of her mother’s house, which would certainly also be covered in white and where the leaves of the evergreen trees, motionless, would have caught the snowflakes, the way they did when she was a child.

Bengal Tiger by Xia Shang (translated by Lee Anderson) looks at the conflict between two families. Chang Jing isn't afraid of the  tigers he works with but is much more meek when it comes to interactions with other people. A disagreement with another zee employee is complicated when the families' children get involved.

Although most of the stories feel very realistic, The Novelist in the Attic by Shen Dacheng (translated by Jack Hargreaves) is a surreal story about a novelist who lives in the attic of a publishing company for many years while trying to write his third novel. It's a clever look at the sacrifices made during a writing career.

Surrealism and the world of publishing also collide in Fue Yuehui's story The Lost (translated by Carson Ramsdell), in which the protagonist  Gu Lingzhou (who works for a publishing company) loses his mobile phone, setting off a tale of confusion and a consideration of how we keep and maintain connections in the modern world. There's some beautiful writing in this story:

'groups of farmers busy with the harvest, occasionally spooking flocks of birds into flight as they worked. Crows, perhaps? Pitch black, scattered in an instant across dusk’s quiet horizon, like little black sesame seeds sprinkled atop a cool, celadon plate. The farmers would pause from their task at
hand and gaze up at the birds, as Gu Lingzhou himself watched for a brief eternity before the feathered beings dove aslope into the lush branches of a camphor tree.'

The last story, State of Trance (Chen Qiufan, translated by Josh Stenberg) a surreal, distopian story of the end of the human world where AI is taking over. An interesting feature of this story is that some passages were generated by AI. Given the current state of the world, this is an appropriate story to finish this brilliant collection which gives so many varied pictures of Shanghai.

The Book of Shanghai edited by Dai Congrong & Dr Jin Li, published (2020) by Comma Press.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

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