to live

January 17th, 2011

This may sound a little odd, but one unexpected side effect of driving is that I’m getting more reading done. I mean, actual dead tree book reading, as opposed to wasting vast amounts of time online reading. The reason is that I pick my wife up from work four evenings a week, and the traffic being rather unpredictable, especially through the CBD, I generally allow the better part of an hour to get to her work. Yes, it has taken me over an hour to drive that measly eight kilometres, thanks in part to the bottleneck formed by the cutting under the railway line at Baiziwan, but mostly due to the vehicular insanity that frequently reigns from the entrance to the Dongjiao Market through the CBD to the southern edge of Hong Miao. Really, the run north from home to Baiziwan is sweet, and once I’m in Hong Miao, the rest of the trip is easy, but the Dongjiao Market and the CBD are often best described as slow motion mayhem. But usually I manage to get through there much quicker, and I usually have time to spare when I arrive at my wife’s work. The amount of time I have to spare can be anything from a few minutes to half an hour, though, so I’ve gotten into the habit of taking a book with me and reading as I wait. And so driving has got me reading more.

And so I picked up my copy of 余华/Yu Hua’s 《活着》/To Live, I book I acquired and first started reading somewhere in the region of three or four years ago. The trouble is, I acted on the half-remembered advice of one of my Russian lecturers, and used it as study. Study as in ‘look up every new word’. And so it quickly became work and all the fun was drained out of reading a book that I had been enjoying. And so, funnily enough, it was put aside and ignored for quite some time. About three or four years, in fact. And so I picked up this book I had failed to read and took it down to the car with me at four-ish every afternoon, drove up to Tuanjiehu, and read as I waited, but this time not worrying about new words, just enjoying the book. And so, funnily enough, this time round I did actually finish reading the novel.

But I have to say I’m disappointed, and I don’t think my disappointment is due to me having spoiled myself with so much Lao She and Lu Xun over the summer and autumn – at least, not entirely. No, I think my disappointment might be due to a couple of things lacking in To Live.

The book starts out with a narrator looking back to a time ten years previous when he had the job of roaming the countryside collecting folk songs. It’s a pretty relaxed job, and this narrator seems to have spent most of his time simply hanging out in the country side, sitting under trees watching the world go by. Then one day he sees an old man plowing his field with an ox he seems to call by several names. The young man (Yu Hua?) and the old man get talking, and the old man decides to tell his life story. After this initial setting of the scene, the book then alternates between the old man, Xu Fugui, narrating his life story and a few interjections from the young man. In the first of these interjections, the young man tells us:


But I didn’t meet anybody else as unforgettable as Fugui, so clear about his own experience, and who could tell his own story so brilliantly.

The first section of Fugui’s narration was reasonably interesting, and so, reading this, I was expecting Fugui to develop into a really good storyteller. Except he doesn’t. If anything, the story gets flatter as the novel progresses, and all the drama that one would expect of a life that experienced so much tragedy, horror, comedy, hope and disappointment seems to dissipate, diffuse into the atmosphere and waft away on the breeze like smoke from the smouldering remains of a campfire.

Well, not entirely. Fugui’s insane reaction to discovering Kugen dead, apparently choked on the beans Fugui had cooked for him, rushing out and grabbing his fellow villagers and having them go and check to see if Kugen really is dead, rings true and is a brief reintroduction of the drama one would expect of a talented storyteller recounting such a tumultuous life. But I found this episode was not described anywhere near as vividly as Fugui described his early wastrel years gambling away the family fortune. And so a story that starts out quite lively descends into a flat recounting of events.

But what bugs me the most is the lack of character development. Well, there is some development with the children, but that seems to be more a natural function of their growth than Yu Hua’s writing. But Fugui is the key here: Having made the translation from son of a rich family and compulsive gambler to poor peasant, nothing happens. It seems the only change is in his sudden lack of money and need to actually work to support his family, while nothing changes in his character. His description of his youth gambling away the family fortune carries with it the flavour of an old man looking back at his youth with a mixture of nostalgia and regret, but after that, nothing. He may as well be narrating events of last week as events of ten, twenty, thirty years ago. There’s no sense of Fugui maturing as he ages.

Compare this with Zhang Yimou’s film based on the novel, in which we see the difficulty, both internal and external, Fugui has adjusting from affluence to poverty. We see him shivering in the snow trying to sell the family heirlooms to raise a little cash, new-found humility, doubt and insecurity etched on his face. We see him learning to ply a trade as a puppeteer, learning about military life and how to survive it. We see his parenting skills develop as he ages. We see wisdom slowly develop. But there is precious little of this is in the novel.

And perhaps half my trouble with the novel is having watched the film so many times? For one thing, I couldn’t help but hear Ge You’s voice when I was reading Fugui’s narration of his life story. That’s not overly helpful when reading a story apparently set in rural Zhejiang – at least, somewhere south of the Yangtze either not far enough south to be subtropical or inland enough to get snow. I assume rural Zhejiang because Yu Hua is from Zhejiang and the only geographical cue I picked up on was Fugui’s travels northwards with the KMT army, then back south and having to cross to the south bank of the Yangtze on his way home. And snow, so it’s set far enough north to occasionally get cold. But wherever it’s set, I have to say that Zhang Yimou seems to have done a much better job of bringing out those little details that move a story from a recitation of events to art – and I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

But is it a good book? Yes, but not great. Oddly enough, I found that hearing Ge You’s classically Beijing voice as I read Fugui’s narration had a lot of Fugui’s speech ringing true, despite the apparent geo-linguistic improbability of such a match. And I don’t think that’s due to Ge You – his voice is just a reflection of the sheer number of times I have watched the film. In other words, on the basis of this one book, I do think Yu Hua has a good ear for the speech patterns of the people around him, and I find that’s a talent essential in any writer who wants to have their stories conceivably based in the real world. Indeed, wooden, clunky, or otherwise badly written dialogue is one of my biggest literary turn-offs. I need to hear the characters’ voices, and Yu Hua nailed Fugui. And the humour, the gritty, low-down humour that can only accompany such a life as Fugui narrates, is well worth the effort. Just get the film out of your mind before you read the book.

And now for my next book… any recommendations?

2 Responses to “to live”

  1. Ji Village News Says:

    Regarding recommendations, here are a few quick ones that came to mind:

    I recently finished 城南旧事 and really, really enjoyed it. Comparing that with 活着, the language should be easier, I think.

    Half memoir, half fiction, the book is comprised of 5 or so stories, which are loosely connected but can also be enjoyed individually. It is written in an easy and comfortable manner, definitely northern, although she talked a little here and there about her parents’ 闽南/客家 accent in a somewhat humorous, matter-of-fact way. It certainly has its share of the darker side of human behaviour, including that of her own family (a little bit, especially about her dad), but one certainly feels the warmth, kindness, and innocence that are very touching and genuine, not manufactured at all.

    It was first published in Taiwan in the early 1960s, and a Mainland movie of the same name was made in the 80s. I’d love to see it if I can find it.

    I am a fan of 王蒙. Two novels of his jumped to mind, neither are terribly long: 组织部新来的年轻人 and 坚硬的稀粥.

    I am reading 七十年代 published by 三联出版社 now, a collection of essays on that period, and also recommend it highly.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll have a look at those.