The best books I own release deep emotional memories when I handle them, or see them on my shelves. Whether a pang of longing, or a pleased satisfaction of a compelling plot, they tap into something deep-seated in my emotional being.
Whenever I catch a glimpse of the first Can Xue book I read – Old Floating Cloud – on my shelves, I have a vivid recollection of the experience of reading it, knowing nothing of her work, nearly two decades ago. Not the plot, or any distinctive characters, but a creeping, maggoty, fleshy unease that lingers. . Can is not a writer you read to relax. She is variously described as avant garde, abstract and subversive; the horrors experienced by Can and her family in the twentieth century are well documented and are generally held to account for her unsettling style and subject matter.
I Live In the Slums is a new collection of short stories from Yale University Press released in May 2020 but originally published over a long period (the oldest in 1996), many of which have appeared in translation before but not collected together. They are translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, professors of Chinese history and linguistics respectively, who have previously translated four books by Can Xue.
Yale are generous with us: there are sixteen stories, one of which is more a novella. Story of the Slums, the first line of which gives the collection its title, is the major work in the collection. It is Can Xue’s Mad Max – it only takes a few pages until we meet a mouse chewing on an old man’s heel, and from there on it is a non-stop nightmare of (deep breath) innards, slop basins, pigs, ants, rotten vegetables, vomit, mucus, spit, blood, urine, shit, scars, children with eyes growing together, killing cats, stabbing keys into necks, eating eyeballs and other horrors. It’s familiar territory for the Can fan. Our first-person narrator is a rat – although even that is somewhat ambiguous, as are many of Can’s narrators – poking around in the secrets of a city. In each of the five parts of the story our ratty friend tells of its encounters with various tormentors, loves and other humans. It is a confusing world of oppressors and terrors, but there are tender and curious moments. I liked the rat’s love and admiration for two humans Lan and Woody, its memory of grasslands, its innate honour and pride (it is affronted by the mouse trying to eat it – rats wouldn’t eat their own kind). The rat judges a man for not being masculine enough and washing his feet. It finds the pain of being eaten exciting and reviving and presents itself for more. It is horrific in every sense, but the horror is the medium: we explore fate, poverty, brutality, and ultimately self-realisation in a way that is deliberately clouded and ambiguous by that horror.
Many of the themes are repeated in the other stories. We have unusual narrators (a middle-aged magpie, a willow tree, a shadow), blurry perceptions, and common thematic preoccupations. Whether the impossibility of knowing the minds of others, mysterious geography or surreal creatures, there are no certainties in Can Xue. We can’t trust our senses or our instincts. We can’t trust names of people, places or things: witness ‘Crow Mountain’, which is not a mountain, or the fact that multiple (or the same?) characters called Ayuan and Drum appear in different stories. We can’t trust physical or human geography – not only are there landslides and earthquakes but places and buildings expand and change at will. With so little to grasp onto, it is an exhausting, disturbing read. We can’t trust time – we can assume the stories are modern by their glass buildings and urban geography, but time is indistinct and unspecified (curiously, the year 1963 does get referred to several times). Many of the creatures, ghost-like beings and transformations could come straight from Pu Songling or folk tales.
The highlights for me were Sin, a fairly straight story about generational sin concerning a locked box; and Our Human Neighbours, a tender story in which a magpie witnesses a fire. With some of the stories I would oscillate between thinking the meaning of the story was crude and obvious, and then being bewildered and worrying if it was beyond me (in the back of my mind is always the quote attributed to Can disparaging those who struggle with her books). Both Sin and Our Human Neighbours had more tangible narratives and meanings, which was undoubtedly their appeal to me. Sin, notably, is also the oldest story in the collection.
The crucial thing, whether I was exhausted or bewildered by the text, is that I very much enjoyed the linguistic ride. The translations are excellent – clear and flowing, conveying the tone and disorientation I associate with Can. The occasional word jars, whether disrupting the tone (‘breakdancing’, ‘sexy’) or conveying an unexpected meaning (‘Why would it matter if you had opened [the box] and looked inside? You’re still too stressed out. You aren’t flexible’ from Sin). Without access to the Chinese I can only assume these are accurate to the original.
It is a shame that publishers have let the side down with some surprisingly cheap-looking cover design. There is a lot to admire in I Live In The Slums, and I enjoyed it – I think.