Review #7: Shadow of the Hunter

It’s always good to see more Su Tong in translation. Wives and Concubines (which I came to know thanks to a VHS of Raise the Red Lantern from the cupboard-sized local video rental shop I used to browse while waiting to pick up an Indian takeaway as a teenager) was a formative work for me in developing a love of Chinese literature. Only now I see how embarrassingly young Su Tong was when he wrote it. Before Petulia’s Rouge Tin finally appeared in translation in 2018 I feel it had been a long time since there had been a new Su Tong; now just two years later we have Shadow of the Hunter translated by James Trapp. It has been a relatively quick turnaround from the Chinese release, helped no doubt by the book winning the 2015 Mao Dun award.

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Shadow of the Hunter is a contemporary setting (which is somewhat unusual for Su Tong), focused on three inhabitants of ‘poverty-stricken, run-down’ Red Toon Street: Baorun, Liu Sheng and Fairy Princess (later Miss Bai). The book tells the story in three parts, with each character taking it in turn to be the focus of perspective. The three are linked by the Jingting Mental Hospital, at which Baorun’s grandfather is a patient after ‘losing his soul’ (a metaphor used throughout – madness is never far from the surface). Through looking after his grandfather, the lonely and repressed Baorun discovers a knack – or is it a fetish? – for tying people up. Fairy Princess, who was raised in the grounds of the hospital by the hospital’s gardener (the patients would give her their pills in the place of candy), is wilful and naturally hostile. Liu Sheng is a notorious local butcher who initially asks Baorun to tie up his wayward sister. At the end of the first part in a tense encounter between the three characters, Liu Sheng rapes Fairy Princess (and cooks her rabbits), blaming Baorun who is sent to prison for ten years, and the three characters continue to circle each other, inescapably bound together and to Red Toon Street.

The plot is quick and propulsive, although somewhat aimless until the event that defines the three characters. The tone, too, is highly changeable – at times cynical and funny, at times horrifying, and ultimately melodramatic. It derives its motion entirely from the agency and reagency of the three characters that Su Tong has convincingly built – each of them acts as you would expect, and each of them is fully realised. As well as usually writing in a historical 20th century setting, Su Tong usually focuses his stories on women and is often lauded for his portrayals of women. I was surprised at first, then, to find Baorun and Liu Sheng the focus of the early events, but as the plot develops it becomes clear that Su Tong is exploring male sexual violence and Miss Bai, who later becomes pregnant by a Taiwanese businessman, becomes the most developed, most complicated character as she navigates an unwanted pregnancy and the shadow of Baorun and Liu Sheng’s violence. The book is so rich in observations, with even minor characters (such as the Taiwanese businessman’s wife) not just well-rounded and memorable but substantial.

She understood what he was saying to her. Don’t play the martyr. Be more open. They despised her and, in their eyes, her body was a secret garden which they had tickets to visit, and which she had to open up to them. What was it that gave them this permission? What was it that so degraded her?

I spent the early parts of the book alert for allusion or deeper meaning, either about human nature or about contemporary China, but I think the book can be taken at face value as a character-driven story about the suddenness and the burden of violence. Some other themes are ever-present: madness, for instance, ghosts, and the vicissitudes of the modern world (e.g., “There’s no shame in losing your soul; the way the world is going now, it’s happening to lots of people”, and the Taiwanese businessman referring to Miss Bai’s foetus as a ‘futures deal’). I happened to have read Crime and Punishment shortly before reading this and there are a lot of parallels for all three characters about the burden of crime and violence. It is like an existentialist Mexican stand-off, and the overall impact is deeply affecting.

The translation is exemplary – the plot and the characters are deeply intertwined and Trapp is able to keep the pace quick while able to reflect the appropriate tone and convey the characters comprehensively, and provide vivid, meaningful descriptive context (‘The sunlight summed the dust in the room; dust so old it wavered unsteadily, and moved only very slowly, making several vague attempts to coalesce, before it finally succeeded in forming a grubby rainbow that slanted lazily across the room’). I am a little unconvinced by the decision to include the occasional explanation or annotation through in-line brackets (‘”Just who do you think you are? Gong Li (a famous Chinese film actress)?”’). It’s better than footnotes but breaks the narrative voice, and surely could have been included in the narrative.

I am also sceptical of the translation of the title. Shadow of the Hunter has a glancing relationship with the Chinese title 黄雀记 (‘Yellowbird Story’, which I’ve also seen translated as ‘Beware of the Siskin’), which is a reference to the Zhuangzi story about the praying mantis stalking a cicada and being unaware of the bird stalking it (螳螂捕蝉黄雀在后). If you know the Zhuangzi it’s easy to see how this is reflected in the three main characters, and this story sensibly also forms part of the cover design and the blurb copy (though I can’t say I care for the cod-mystical framing ‘The people of China tell of an ancient tale…’ but hey, they’ve got a book to sell). The title makes sense knowing the context but it is too far removed from it, and in itself it absolutely suggests a thriller, as does the publicity line ‘Prey, Predator, Predator, Prey. On this street, the hunters are also the hunted’. I found that it jarred with the content and tone of the book.

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