If you’re at all susceptible to them, books can radically change your mood. Last week I read Peter Ackroyd’s The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde and was in seventh heaven when engaging with its panache and literary wizardry. My days raced by. After that I turned to Cao Naiqian’s (曹乃謙) There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night, newly translated from Chinese, and the contrast was dramatic. I slept badly, dragged my feet, and felt the world must surely be able to offer a more invigorating spectacle than the depressing world I was confronting.
Yet many of the great and the good from the world of Chinese literature in translation have come together to celebrate this book. Goran Malmqvist, the member of the Nobel Prize committee said to be responsible for giving the 2000 prize to Gao Xingjian (高行健), is Cao’s translator into Swedish and encouraged the present translator John Balcom to undertake the task, and Howard Goldblatt, finest of translators of modern Chinese fiction, is thanked in the book’s acknowledgements. Balcom makes comparisons with Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell. All seemed set for a great read. So what happened?
There’s Nothing I Can Do was first published in Chinese in Taiwan in 2005, and an edition for China followed two years later. (This is yet another tribute to Taipei’s eminence in the world of Chinese-language publishing, as neither the author nor the content has anything to do with Taiwan — though I did notice one comic reference to the old cadre who is prominent in the tale, saying the villagers should “liberate Taiwan and rescue [its] commune members from [their] abyss of suffering”).
The book consists of 30 stories, many published in magazines in China during the 1980s and 1990s. But the same characters reappear and the work ends up becoming a sort of novel. It’s set during the Cultural Revolution and the location is Shanxi Province, a short distance from the border of Inner Mongolia. The author, who comes from that area, wrote the whole book in Shanxi dialect, something the translator, who has enough problems without needing more, doesn’t attempt to replicate.
The feeling you have is that this is the remotest and poorest village imaginable. It has almost no connection with life elsewhere, and the characters, all of whom live in caves, have names like Lucky Ox, Zits Wu, Little Dog, Big Dog, or just Dog. Moreover they all appear to have only two interests in life — food and sex.
From the first story onwards an atmosphere of gross farce is established. As you progress through the book you encounter sex with animals, two men sharing a wife, and sex with one’s mother. The final tale, Corncob, seems to be an attempt to combine all these things into a single narrative, though it ends in tragedy rather than remaining on the absurdist level most of the other stories inhabit.
So why did this book, which on the face of it must sound high-spirited and rambunctious if nothing else, depress me so much? I think the answer lies in its repetitiveness.
Take the language first. It’s tempting to say that swear words proliferate, but the actuality is that it’s just one, the dreaded f-word, that reappears over and over again, perhaps thousands of times in all. It appears as an adjective and as part of some of the characters’ names as well as a simple expletive. This becomes extremely wearying, like the endless reappearance of the French word “merde” in Alfred Jarry’s classic satirical farce King Ubu.