REVIEW: Between Confidantes: Two Novellas by Chen Danyan

On my second attempt at book hoarding during the tailend of the Big Bad Wolf book sale, I found that I didn’t have much to choose from anymore. It took me some time before I could pick some books which I thought were just ok. One of those is Between Confidantes: Two Novellas by Chen Danyan.

The little pocketbook is part of a collection of modern Chinese literature for English readers. The authors were either immigrants to Shanghai or were born in Shanghai who had their works published in the 1970s to 1980s. I was intrigued with the collection since China to me during those decades was a blank slate. I do not know how the country fared after Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Deng’s market economy reform. The social construction I had of China was a mish-mash of Jackie Chan, the Chinese period dramas (the flying kung-fu heroes and heroines) shown by Channel 13 and Channel 5 when I was a kid, Zhang Yimou, HK movies, and history books. The first time I visited China–Shanghai and Hanzhou to be exact–was in 2003 at the height of SARS (and the experience was a bit terrifying and funny but that’s for another blog entry). I remember the eight-lane highways and huge suspended bridges. The manicured lawns of expat communities of Pudong. The Bund.  I was back in 2014 and I couldn’t recognize the places except for The Bund. China is rapidly changing but I couldn’t fathom what was it like during the transition from being the ravaged China post-Cultural Revolution to the economic powerhouse that it is today.

I picked up Two Confidantes with low expectations. Now that I’ve read it, I should have picked up another pocketbook from that collection because it turned out to be decent.

The first of the two novellas is about two bestfriends working as nurses in a Shanghai hospital during the late 1980s or early 1990s, I think, because there was reference to VHS tapes. The story was told from the point of view of Xiaomin, who moonlights as a bar girl after her shift at the hospital so she could meet a potential rich husband since the bar where she works is frequented by businessmen. Her motivation for being a nurse was to meet a future husband as well. However, it was her meek but pretty bestfriend An’an who managed to snag a civil servant husband who had been a patient in their hospital. While An’an was sent to a field mission, Xiaomin and An’an’s husband, Little Chen, had a short-time affair. Xiaomin decided to cut her association with Little Chen right before An’an came back. Unfortunately, Little Chen lost his head and became obsessed with Xiaomin and was determined to ditch An’an and continue his affair with his wife’s bestfriend. That’s when things started to go downhill. Xiaomin was such a hateful character that the ending was satisfying.

The second story was about Yao Yao and her mother and how they were shaped by the transformation of China from the 1940s to the 1970s. This story left a lasting impression on me as it let me peek into what happened to the bourgeois set and the intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. I knew that the Cultural Revolution was not for the faint-hearted but I had no idea of how they lived through it. The story was raw and excruciating especially as it was written by a native Chinese who may have first-hand experience of that horrible episode. The description of the squalid living conditions of the zealous urban youth who were sent to the rural areas was palpable. I could taste the desperation of those who could not accept the rapid changes and of those who were unjustly accused that they had to die by their own hands. And Yao yao’s end is like a punch to the stomach that took the wind out of me. I couldn’t decide whether I’d rather have it that way to end Yao yao’s misery or I’d like to scream at the author for not giving her some kind of reprieve.

I blame the horrid translation for not giving Chen Danyan’s stories the elegance of prose they deserve.

I give it four stars.

REVIEW: The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel

This is one of my random picks at the recent Big Bad Wolf book sale. I judge the book by its cover and I am not apologizing for it. I have this inexplicable desire to read Asian authors or Asian themes nowadays after finding myself getting tired of YA novels (of course I should get tired of it, I’m almost 40 years old!). I had been reading YA literature for a while because I always thought I will graduate as a YA novelist. I am also now taking a pause from my fantasy reads because Tamora Pierce gave me headaches (for a different reason, not because her writing was subpar).

Anyway, I was duped by that one line that says, “‘Breathtaking’–Adeline Yen Mah” on the cover

Because I liked Adeline Yen Mah’s Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter since 1) her prose is not that difficult to read and; 2) I liked how she described the political and social milieu, the context, and how that shaped the story. So I was thinking Eastern Jewel was indeed good.

It’s supposed to be good. How can it not be when the subject is a real-life Manchu princess who was banished to Japan, married off to a Mongol prince, escaped Mongolia, then came back to China as a Japanese spy?

But Maureen Lindley bungled it. She really bungled it big time. It could have been a fascinating fictionalized story of a real-life adventuress if it had been handled well but all it had was the sexual exploits of a really baaaaaaaaaaaaaad person. I am having a hard time finishing this novel but I have to so I can move on to my other new books. And I’m no prude, so that says a lot.

As a writer, Lindley was passable in the sense that she is not as horrible as the creators of the Twilight Series and Fifty Shades (I never got past the first chapter of Fifty Shades, it was like a mangled fanfic). However, I have issues with her storytelling. Good writers show, they just don’t tell. (This is the same mantra for us journalists as well). Lindley doesn’t need to tell her readers in plain language that Yoshiko Kawashima was a horrible person (“I am bad.” LOL). Her thought process and description of her deeds were enough to show readers that her moral compass was off. The writer lacks that sophistication that allows a reader to peel layers upon layers of this complex person. In the hands of a master storyteller, Yoshiko could have been much more than the caricature that Lindley had painted.

In addition, Lindley’s writing–about the cultures (Japanese and Chinese) she hasn’t lived or experienced first-hand–feels contrived. Her description of Shanghai, the rooms she had lived in, and the life Yoshiko supposed to have lived in Tokyo made me feel like the author just wanted to paint the story as a really exotic one. Like it was meant for clueless Westerners. But these were just merely descriptions, without rhyme nor reason. I could feel in her prose that she doesn’t have a good grasp of the culture, the milieu, of the people she was writing about. She merely relied on rhetoric, which can easily be picked up from historical texts. Another giveaway was how Yoshiko observed, as Lindley wrote, that Empress Wan Jung called Manchukuo (the Japanese puppet state located in the Northeast now part of the Three Northeast provinces/Dongbei) as Manchuria, the alleged Chinese name. But according to historical texts, the Chinese never called it Manchuria, only the Westerners did since Manchuria was a Western/Japanese construct. Yes, there are Manchus (a Japanese construct/translation of Manshu/Manzhou) but no Manchuria.

According to Nakami Tatsuo, Philip Franz von Siebold was the one who brought the usage of the term Manchuria to Europeans after borrowing it from the Japanese, who were the first to use it in a geographic manner in the eighteenth century although neither the Manchu nor Chinese languages had a term in their own language equivalent to “Manchuria” as a geographic place name.[12] The Manchu and Chinese languages had no such word as “Manchuria” and the word has imperialist connotations.[13]

In contrast, Pearl S. Buck (The Good Earth), who is another Westerner writing about another culture not her own, had a better handle of the subject. She wrote about Wang Lung from a third-person point of view. Her writing captivated me, her prose clear and uncomplicated. She had the ability to transport me to China, to the middle of that devastating flood, to make me weep for O-Lan, to imprint in my mind the line that says Wang Lung cannot divorce O-Lan because it was like cutting a part of him, like his hand, but he cannot help being addicted to his favorite concubine. She made me feel the gravity of the earth, the preciousness of it, the beauty and madness of it. Buck had knowledge of the culture, of the people she wrote about–albeit as a spectator and not part of it–because she grew up in China as a child of missionaries and spent a good part of her adult life back in China.

So back to Lindley. I hate her for wallowing in so much BDSM like that was the only essence of Yoshiko. Yeah, the subject is probably hypersexualized than normal Chinese/Japanese but really, that is all you can write about this fascinating character?

Three stars for effort and lucid prose.