Wednesday 24 June 2020

Nicky Harman on The Book of Shanghai: some exciting writing talent and excellent translators

As a follow-up to Rosie Milne's post on THE BOOK OF SHANGHAI, I have been thinking about what makes a good introduction to contemporary Chinese literature, and what can persuade new readers to dip a toe in unknown waters. Logically, short stories should be a good way in, because length-wise, they don’t require too much commitment. But I am someone who loves to immerse myself in a full-length novel, so I approached The Book of Shanghai with, let’s say, an open mind.

Historically, Shanghai has had a powerful grip on the western imagination. Of course, it was always much more than the exotic den of iniquity it was portrayed as. As Jin Li, one of the editors, writes in his excellent introduction, ‘The influences of a recently industrialized West mingled, interacted and cross-pollinated with the traditions of a culture that had developed over many centuries. As a contact point between East and West, with its unique location, Shanghai paved the way, acting as a testing site where various ideological and cultural ideas were welcomed, accommodated and re-imagined.’

But that was then, and now is now. In The Book of Shanghai, the picture emerges of a thoroughly modern city. These stories scarcely even hint at Shanghai’s exotic or insalubrious past. Instead, they describe the human condition as it is today. Not that all the stories are realistic. Some are quite fantastical and have beguilingly strange protagonists. But all of them are rooted in the present... or the future.

Given that I firmly believe that the translator is the author’s best and closest reader, I decided to ask some of the translators to give me their impressions. There are ten writers, five male and five female, and ten translators. I spoke to five, and the editor.

I started with Jack Hargreaves, who translated The Novelist in the Attic. He wrote to me, ‘Seamless prose is always a joy to translate, and Shen Dacheng's writing is certainly that, but most of all, she’s so creative. I'm happy that I hadn't read the whole story before translating it – when the final twist came, I don't think I typed anything for minutes afterwards. Shen Dacheng's playful premises certainly keep a reader on the edge of their seats, but this story nearly knocked me off mine.’

Helen Wang translated Ah Fang’s Lamp. She says, ‘I initially loved this story because of Wang Anyi’s beautiful language and the warmth of the story. But it’s also strangely compelling. The structure is simple and apparently very light: the narrator walks up and down the same little Shanghai street to and from work every day, and starts to notice a family in a house on the street… “When I have time to spare, and nothing else on my mind, I start to wonder”. Just a random glimpse into another life, then. But over time, life on this street changes, and the narrator’s ongoing gentle curiosity gives rise to more complex views of past, present and future: the parallel lives of the narrator and the family, interested in each other and yet detached; the narrator’s piecing together of the family’s past, at the same time as the family is focussing on building their future; and finally the narrator running away from the past to preserve a positive fairy tale for the future.’

Christopher MacDonald, on The Story of Ah-Ming: ‘Wang Zhanhei tells Ah-Ming's story through the collective voice of an entire neighbourhood. She's an exemplar of urban hustle and vigour, part of the fabric of local life, but through no fault of her own has come to be shunned and ignored. It's a moving and recognisable tale, skilfully told, and was a pleasure to translate.’
Lee Anderson translated Bengal Tiger by Xia Shang. ‘The most enjoyable aspect for me was watching and then translating the story's protagonist Rocky (小雄 in Chinese – and yes, there was a lot of discussion about how to render his name in English) as his devil-may-care bravado and fierce – even ferocious – loyalty towards his family forcibly push the story in interesting and sometimes unexpected directions.’

And in case you thought literary translation was a doddle, Yuyan Chen wrote to me, ‘Woman dancing under stars (Teng Xiaolan)  was truly a labour of love. I had to go through more than ten drafts to get it right. I worked really hard at it, going through draft after draft to make sure that I covered everything. It is still not perfect, but I've tried my best!’

There are two editors credited for this collection, Jin Li, quoted above, and Dai Congrong, the redoubtable translator who recently spent eight years translating James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake into Chinese. I asked Jin Li how the stories were chosen. Which were his particular favourites?

Jin Li: ‘My aim was to make a selection that told Shanghai’s story, and was representative of its authors. I didn’t consider the readers… because I don’t know their tastes, and that’s the publisher’s job anyway. [It was a complicated process.]  In some cases, writers I greatly admire for their long fiction didn’t make it because I felt their short pieces were not their best work. On the other hand, we had to leave out one extremely good story that I particularly wanted to include, Chen Cun’s Death – for copyright reasons. In Death, the narrator visits the old home of the French translator Fu Lei (1908–1966), and the story becomes a dialogue with Fu Lei’s ghost on the meaning of life. Brilliantly atmospheric.

In the final selection, more than half are authors born in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Shanghai is a city which looks to the future and in my literary criticism, I have always focussed on young writers. Besides, they are an extremely diverse and creative community.

My personal favourite? I would like to recommend The Story of Ah-Ming, by Wang Zhanhei, the youngest of our contributors. Her story has a personal resonance for me and this is why:  my parents are Shanghai born and bred, and I was born here too, but during the Cultural Revolution, we were sent away to Wuxi, in Jiangsu, and so I grew up knowing Shanghai only through stories. I finally made it back when I got a place at Fudan University. One day I overheard two dorm mates talking about me, ‘When he speaks Shanghainese, he pronounces words wrong!’ The thought that people around me had identified me as ‘not Shanghainese’ was traumatizing. I, along with so many young people, had conflicting feelings about the city: a mixture of ambition and anxiety, a desperate desire to fit in, and a feeling of being excluded. It is a theme touched on by many young writers.

When I first returned to Shanghai, I used to go to my grandmother’s house every weekend. Grandma’s flat was in an old-fashioned workers housing block. Whenever I arrived, it was like stepping back to a place where time had stood still – mahjong tiles clacked, old women chatted under the trees, and the air was filled with the smell of fried salted ribbonfish. I hated those visits and did everything I could to get out of going. Yet these are the very spaces that Wang Zhanhei recreates in her stories. In so doing, she succeeds in bringing out the inherent dignity, vitality and richness of a community hitherto ignored by readers like me…. You can look at this book as a map, one which takes you not only to the city’s well-known landmarks, but deep into its hidden corners, illustrating its inhabitants, and the joys and sorrows of their daily lives.’

It is a mark of the richness of Shanghai literary life that apart from China’s most famous living woman author, Wang Anyi, whose evocative story heads the collection, and the scifi whizz Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan), whose story rounds it off, the other writers are virtually unknown in translation. Let’s hope that The Book of Shanghai is just the beginning for them. Some of them are very exciting.