When it comes to Chinese fiction in translation stylistic excess rules, to the point that suspicions of realpolitik inevitably arise. Perhaps publishers think Western readers, expecting to be overwhelmed by a country whose considerable global clout is growing during a worldwide recession, would be disappointed with anything less than the dizzying phantasmagoria of a Cue Xue or the profligate comic hijinks of a Mo Yan. The most recent example of over-the-topness, Yu Hua’s “Brothers,” is a fat, hysterically raunchy cartoon satire of China’s contradictory manias for consumption and control.
So the primal minimalism, the matter-of-fact savagery evoked in Cao Naiqian’s remarkable collection of interlaced stories “There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of Your Late At Night” (Columbia University Press, 232 pages) provides a powerful alternative to the impression of maximalism. The volume’s translator John Balcom writes in his informative introduction that “the economy of expression and understatement of his [Cao’s] writing are unique in contemporary China.” He also points out that Cao’s allegiance to realism and his gritty study of the poverty-stricken lives of peasants marginalizes him during a time of enthusiasm for post-modern truisms.
Cao’s terse style may owe something to the writer’s ‘legit’ job – since 1972 he has been a police detective in the Public Security Bureau of Datong City. Set in rural China (Shanxi Province) during the Cultural Revolution, his stories are not rote police tales of criminal scheming and enforcement neurosis. This volume offers indelible images of people on the edge, raw yet poetic depictions of violence and despair rooted in the denial of needs for food, sex, and respect. Many of the stories revolve around incest, bestiality, suicide, murder, and mental illness.
Stuck by the art, courage, and visceral punch of “There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late At Night,” I asked Balcom about Cao Naiqian’s use of language, his political leanings, and his literary influences.
The World: Why do you think it is important that Western readers become acquainted with Cao Naiqian? What is your favorite story in the collection?
John Balcom: There are a number of reasons I think it is important that Western readers become acquainted with Cao Naiqian. Most of all, he is a fine writer, a marvelous talent. I have been reading and translating Chinese literature for over a quarter of a century and this work was one that cried out immediately to be translated. Good books deserve to be translated and known, that’s the bottom line here. The stories he tells are worth reading — stepping into the world depicted by Cao is troubling, but also moving; it is a side of China that most are not familiar with.
As for a favorite story, that is hard to say – there are too many of them. I read the work more as a novel and think it is best appreciated as a whole. The cumulative effect of the stories is staggering.
The World: For Western readers unfamiliar with the fiction of Cao Naiqian, discuss his place in modern Chinese fiction.
John Balcom: I see him as a bit of an outsider. You must remember that many of China’s writers are supported (still) by the state through writers associations – they are paid to write. Cao has a day job as a police detective. (As a literary translator in the US, I can relate to this.) His writing has largely been done on his own time, though he did at one point receive a stipend that allowed him to take time off from work to write.
The World: Why do you think his writing departs, so radically, from much of contemporary fiction in China?
John Balcom: This is an interesting question, because on some levels he is a throwback to an earlier age – these days as fiction has moved online, he writes about rural China and in a local dialect, all things that were encouraged by the state literary bureaucracy for decades. This is why I touched upon Zhao Shuli in my introduction. Zhao Shuli wrote about rural life in Shanxi before and after the revolution. He was a great storyteller, but was definitely working largely within the confines of the parameters established for literature at the Yenan Forum.
Cao Naiqian has no such limitations and explores realms that have been off limits to fiction in China for a long time – the polyandrous relationships in the poor countryside, for example, not to mention taboo subjects such as incest. Cao provides an honest portrait of the other China, the one that is not seen on international tours, the poor one that has lacked access to much of what most of us take for granted, adequate food and education, for example. In this regard he is a courageous writer. In political terms, what he writes about is something that would have been impossible to do just a few decades ago.
Another way in which Cao departs from contemporary writing is simply in the quality of his writing. Many contemporary writers are quite prolix and have little sense of style – they have stories to tell, but lack a sense of craftsmanship when it comes to writing. Cao, on the other hand, writes economically, more like a poet – remove one word and the whole thing falls apart. This is one thing that won’t necessarily be apparent to the reader of Chinese fiction in translation, mainly because most works of Chinese fiction in translation are heavily cut and edited in this country. My translation of Cao was not.
The World: How does Cao Naiqian’s work – a police detective in the Public Security Bureau of Datong City, Shanxi – shape the subject matter and style of his writing?
John Balcom: In some ways I think he is a natural born writer in his ability to observe people. Clearly, though, there is a relationship — his work has brought him into contact with a wide variety of people, and, as a detective, he is a keen observer of human nature who attempts to understand human motivations. Some of his characters are based on actual individuals he has known. Leng Er, for instance, was a real human being that Cao knew. I think he has a great understanding and empathy for human beings.
The World: In this collection he focuses on the shocking barbarity of life in a rural community in China during the Cultural Revolution. Why does he concentrate on the tawdry, especially sexual perversion?
John Balcom: Cao once commented that he wanted to write about the way people lived at a certain period. The characters in the book are scarcely able to rise above the realm of necessity. Food and sex are primary desires that are not fulfilled by the system. I quote from the “Book of Rites,” a Confucian classic, in my introduction to make the point that there are basic human motives that transcend time or place. I think it is the investigation of human motives on this level that drives Cao’s writing. He is dealing honestly with a realm of existence, which none of us has experienced, a world that is light years away from us.
The World: In moving stories such as “Wen Shan’s Woman” animals display more humanity than human beings. How much is Cao Naiqian’s dark vision of society influenced by his view of the Chinese government?
John Balcom: I don’t really see any overt political criticism as such, and I don’t think that was his intention. I think it is more subtle than that. Again, I think he is examining things at a much more basic level. Naturally, politics is evident throughout the work. Why do people exist on the level they do? What about the system has led to this situation? In the stories, Party members are usually depicted as self serving and incapable of dealing with anything serious – in the last story, for example, the authorities are more than happy to arrest a peeping tom, but as soon as soon as any danger is involved, they don’t want to get involved.
As I said, I think it is more basic and subtle than that. It strikes me that Cao is dealing with characters operating outside of any ideological system – they would do the same in a traditional Confucian system or a contemporary Communist one. Think of the character Dog, for instance. For him work is the most important thing in life – it doesn’t matter who he works for – the Japanese or the Communists. Also, think of the way justice is meted out in the village – there is no organized legal system. Rather a village elder makes the decisions. One gets the impression that that is the way things have been done since the beginning of time. In this way the village almost exists outside of time, approaching a place of myth.
The World: What writers have influenced Cao Naiqian’s writing? In terms of technique, some of the stories are powerful but clumsy and repetitive. On the other hand, a tale about a blind man’s attempt to kill himself expertly evokes the absurd humor of Samuel Beckett.
John Balcom: This is not all that easy to pinpoint. Cao is a voracious reader of Western fiction in translation and of classical Chinese fiction. I know he is a fan of Faulkner, who, of course, depicted illiterate backcountry characters in almost mythical terms. On the Chinese side, I see certain affinities with the writing of the great Shen Congwen.
I would disagree with the characterization of his stories being clumsy and repetitive. His writing is more tightly structured and less repetitive than much of what we encounter in contemporary Chinese fiction today. He is a master of short fiction. I was drawn to the work for its concision and its subtlety — the irony of some of the pieces is as good as anything produced by Lu Xun. In fact, I think he has a better sense of craft than many so-called professional writers in China today. Perhaps the subtlety is tied to an understanding of the culture, though. The longest piece, “Corncob” is seen sometimes as being too long, but I think that contributes to the horror and ultimately the sadness of the piece.
The World: In your introduction to the volume you talk about the dialect Cao Naiqian uses in his writing. Talk about the difficulties of translating Cao Naiqian. What is lost in translation?
John Balcom: This is a good question. The difficulties that I encountered as translator do not exist for the reader of the translation. The first thing that is lost is the linguistic sense of place. In reading the Chinese text, one is immediately in the presence of a deep sense of place. There is just no way to capture this in English. The dialect is apparent to any reader of the Chinese text, but even the native speaker of Chinese will have difficulty with some of it. On another level, many aspects of the material culture depicted in the tales needed to be explained. Cao Naiqian was extremely helpful in explaining these details as well as explaining the use of dialect. (Thank goodness for email!) I ended up with about fifty pages of notes on dialect and material culture. I think that the losses are offset with what is gained – a sense of clarity and ease of understanding for the reader. In this case, my homework as translator should help the reader.