The oeuvre is not enough


ah q coverI recently read Julia Lovell’s excellent translation of Lu Xun’s complete fiction, The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China. As with all short story collections, it took me far too long to finish this volume and as a consequence, this isn’t going to be a very complete discussion of it. Also, I lost the bookmark I was using on which to obsessively write my thoughts. I’ll just say this to start then: If you’re at all interested in either Chinese literature or short fiction as a genre, you really should read this book. It is a damned fine collection; I can’t compare it to anything else I’ve read, which is always a point in a book’s favour, I think.

Not that I can back up my enthusiastic claims very much, having lost my notes and having taken more than a month to read it; you’ll just have to trust me! You trust me, don’t you? You should, because while I may be cranky, judgmental, close-minded, and vulgar, I would never lie to you. Not about books, anyway.

All Lu Xun’s stories were excellent, but “Forging the Swords” (in the section Old Stories Retold), I thought was the most outstanding. It was utterly insane, about a young man going to kill the king for murdering his father, a celebrated sword-maker. When he was forging the perfect sword for which he died (kings and damned their paranoia and jealousies, right?), another just like it was inexplicably created at the same time.

The boy’s mother tells him this story and gives him the mysterious mirror sword with which to avenge his father and off he goes…And then things become rather surreal. The boy meets a strange man who offers to help him:

I knew your father, just as I have always known you. But that is not my reason for coming to you tonight. Listen, ingenious child. I excel only in the taking of revenge. Your vengeance is mine; and so is his. I have no care for myself–my soul is thick with scars, inflicted by others and by my own hand; I hate myself for it.

Then heads roll, and they still talk after they’ve rolled, and then they get really crazy.

Given Lu Xun’s extensive education, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a little bit in mind here–but only a little bit, for “Forging the Swords” reaches heights of absurdist terror that the Pearl Poet wouldn’t have been capable of imagining. The denouement of this tale is really sort of silly–and yet, this somehow doesn’t affect its profound creepiness. At its conclusion, the story turns into a commentary on bureaucratic squabbling.

LuXun1930I suppose that doesn’t sound like a successful combination, but it really is. I think Lu Xun is, from my position of total un-education in the history of Chinese literature, rightly considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of Chinese literature. The sheer variety, the incredible versatility of style and subject matter– sometimes within the confines of one perfect tale–is truly astounding. That I got through his complete fiction by reading only 400 or so pages makes me incredibly sad.

The Wikipedia tells me that Lu Xun also wrote a great number of essays, and my beloved TPL has four volumes of his non-fiction. I will read these at some point, if they’re footnoted. But I admit, I worry: they’re not translated by Julia Lovell. I’ve read so many bad translations, in various languages, over the years that I now find myself shying away from translator I don’t already know are trustworthy. For Chinese works, I look for either Julia Lovell or Howard Goldblatt.

Since  I’ve brought it up, my favourite translators:

  • Japanese: Jay Rubin, Stephen Snyder, Philip Gabriel. Maybe Michael Emmerich? I need to read more before I form an opinion (speaking of which, next up after I finish Hester: Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake).
  • Spanish: Edith Grossman, Gregory Rabassa.
  • Russian: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
  • Portuguese: Margaret Jull Costa.
  • French: Douglas Parmee, even though I think I’ve read only one of his translations. That translation was Dangerous Liaisons, one of my favourite books in the world.

Obviously, you need to tell me right now if there are excellent translators in these or other languages that I’m missing.

While you’re thinking about this important issue, go find yourself a copy of Lu Xun’s complete fiction–unless you’re mad at yourself or literature or books or awesomeness.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. heidenkind says:

    Just as soon as I finish the Tale of Genji…

    1. Colleen says:

      Ha. I’ve been 200 pages into Don Quixote for the past 2 or 3 months–I know just how you feel.

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