A while back, I embarked on a project designed to provide me with a working knowledge of world literature by the time I’m ninety. I like to call it ‘Project: Well-Read B4 Dead’. Every so often, using a complex system incorporating informed opinion, astronomical charts and the I Ching, I select a book that I may not necessarily be drawn to just on personal taste, but is undoubtedly very good. Hopefully, once the project is complete, I will be able to say, ‘now, I truly know literature’, and expire, content.
This time round, I read Diary of a Madman and Other Stories by the early 20th Century Chinese author, Lu Xun. There’s always a danger when reading what is clumsily known as world literature (and I say this fully aware that English language writing is ‘world literature’ to others) that however good the author is, that their writing is just too tied up with the historical and social specifics of their time and place of creation to be able to communicate that much to those not overly familiar with them. A case in point would be some of the later writings of Borges, which are so tied up with Argentinian history and identity, getting through them requires a lot of dedication and patience with translator’s footnotes.
With the writings of Lu Xun, you need the footnotes. He wrote during a relatively short historical moment, in which China gradually moved away from being a feudal society, a sometimes violent process of modernisation that ultimately resulted in the Communist Revolution led by Mao. Fortunately, the footnotes in William A. Lyell’s translation are absolutely excellent, as is his conversion of the author’s colloquial Chinese into American English (Example: ‘Let that be a lesson, you fucker!’)
Lu Xun’s principle concern was highlighting the things that China needed to discard in order to move forward, such as superstition and the social injustices that traditional hierarchies inflicted on those at the bottom of the heap. Consequently, a lot of his stories follow the blueprint of much literature of the Left of this period, which is, essentially, ‘bad things happening to poor people’ (see the short stories of Jack London for an American variant on this).
Conditioned by the sentimental feel-good structure of more recent stories of poverty and woe, I kept on waiting for the initial grim set-up to be turned upside by some unexpected good fortune. In Lu Xun, however, the good fortune never arrives, and things turn out just as badly as you fear they might. Grim reading, perhaps, but then no one ever brought about social change by telling people that everything will magically be all right if you just wait around long enough.
Not all the short stories are this bleak, however (and even the bleak ones have a sad, stark beauty that rescues them from wrist-slashing territory). Others are more ambiguous, with a balance of elements so subtle it sometimes wasn’t until a full twenty-four hours later that I saw how they added up to actually constitute a story.
Indeed, there’s quite a variety of tone. ‘The Story of Hair’ quirkily details how the recent history of China is reflected in trends in hairstyles. ‘Mourning the Dead’ is a beautiful and sad love story that’s crying out for a film version and a Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar. ‘Village Opera’, meanwhile, is an autobiographical piece that weirdly mirrors my childhood experience of a Radio 1 Roadshow with Peter Powell.
Perhaps Lu Xun’s writing is most immediate, however, when he’s writing about madness, a theme he returns to several times (insanity induced, of course, by the strictures of an unfair society). Here’s an older translation of the Gogol-inspired title story of the collection. Why not give it a go?
All in all, I’d say reading it was a valuable experience. I feel stretched and satisfied. Now I’m just off to find something where unexpected good fortune makes everything all right in the end.