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.