Sometimes it is extraordinary to observe the difference between French and Anglo-Saxon literary tastes and attitudes.
Here is a novel, first published in French, written in the simplest imaginable prose, as slender and yet as strong as a hare's skeleton. Some of its chapters are no more than a page long. Yet this frail thing is adorned with scholarly footnotes. The combination of the whittled-down style and the footnotes is something hard to imagine originating from a London or New York publisher. Yet here it is now in English translation.
The book is set in Manchuria in the 1930s, during the Japanese invasion. The two narrators of its 92 chapters alternate. The odd-numbered chapters are told by a 16-year old Chinese girl, fearful, like everyone else, of the invading soldiers' advance. The even-numbered ones are told by a young officer in the Japanese army.
Sex is prominent in the lives of them both. The girl, who is descended from a line of nobility whose women breast-fed the Manchurian emperors, fights off the unwelcome attentions of a relative, then gives up her virginity to one of two students she meets, both of whom are in love with her.
And the officer, anxious to prove his manhood (as he perceives it), strains and struggles, both on the battlefield and in the arms of the alluring Manchurian prostitutes.
The two principal characters are eventually drawn together by the girl's displays of skill at the game of go in her home town's public square, and the young officer's determination to discover what lies behind this seemingly impossible feat of female
The construction of this subtle and elegant, though sometimes sensational novel at first looks as if it's going to be plain sailing. Before long, however, the stories become so engaging that it's hard not to skip the next chapter in order to find out what happens after the one you've just finished. But then, as both stories become equally gripping, you're forced to follow the author's intention and switch regularly from one story to the other. It's a practice that increasingly pays dividends as the dramatic end of the novel approaches.
The author, Shan Sa, is 29 and, though born in Beijing, has been living in France since the age of 18. This is her third novel and all three books have already won for themselves important French literary prizes.
What makes this novel so vivid is that the details of life -- the pirouetting of a carp in its sunlit tank, the jokes played on each other by the Japanese officers -- serve to join the two groups of people together. Certainly we enter imaginatively into the lives of both parties. But the political reality is that they are fighting a war, and you know from the beginning that something terrible is eventually going to happen. This shared sense of the immediacy and the transience of life is what in the final analysis makes this novel so strong, so intelligent, and so moving.
There are many other themes in this deceptively simple book. The Japanese officer, for instance, as a child had a Chinese nurse, and she taught him Chinese stories, as well as making him fluent in Mandarin. In this way, the historical influence of Chinese culture on Japanese life is subtly introduced into the book, an influence that becomes ever more significant as the Japanese soldiers advance on their brutally oppressive mission into Manchuria.