Snacking on Melon Seeds while Reading Liu Zhenyun: The “Divine Mathematician’s” Divination Wheel

Beijing Youth Daily, 20th December, 2017
By Pian Pian
Translated by Todd Foley

The saying, “water that’s too clear has no fish, people who are too critical have no friends” describes the situation surrounding Liu Zhenyun’s works: they are so clever and insightful that no critic wants to touch them for fear of looking foolish. So we could add to this saying, “the author who is too clever has no critics.” To draw a rather inappropriate example, we could say that Mo Yan writes from below the belt, while Liu Zhenyun writes from the head. Mo Yan is a bit like a shaman dancing up a sweat and raving wildly, leaving people with some room for interpretation; Liu Zhenyun, on the other hand, is more like Jiang Jing, the “Divine Mathematician” from Outlaws of the Marsh—with a sharp tongue, a soft heart, and a divination wheel, everything falls within his miraculous foresight, and there is nothing anyone else can add.

There’s a saying that nowadays all the smart people have stopped writing novels—implying that everyone still writing is stupid. So It’s wonderful for contemporary literature to have such an intelligent author who writes so carefully and conscientiously.

After reading Liu Zhenyun’s new novel Strange Bedfellows (literally, “Children of the Melon-Eating Era”), I am first of all struck by its ferocious sense of vigor. To quote the classical poet Tao Yuanming, “A fierce ambition always exists.” A great writer who can so cavalierly reflect reality and touch upon the darkest depths of human life is hard to come by. Adhering so closely to reality is almost like non-fiction writing about the news, taking events from the news and editing or dressing them up slightly to create a novel—but the work’s strong internal currents bring readers to astonished gasps. Behind every fiery episode, readers can see threads of ruined lives.

Liu Zhenyun’s work uses the traditional chapter format of the novel, with a linear structure and a string of seemingly random events that are actually all connected and which echo throughout the novel in a number of ways. Strange Bedfellows traces the stories of four people in different places and from different social classes who originally have no connection with one another but who, at crucial points, are brought together through secret connections; their stories eventually, and tragically, come full circle. Niu Xiaoli, a young woman from the countryside, lends her brother money to buy a wife, never thinking she would run away with the money. Niu Xiaoli goes after her to chase down the money, but when this yields no results, she ends up having to sell her body to get the money back. Provincial governor Li Anbang runs into a series of troubles, and his official position appears to be in doubt. The advice he receives is to “break red”—that is, have sex with a virgin and clear away his bad luck with her blood. As a result, he ends up sleeping with Niu Xiaoli, who poses as a virgin. The corruption case of county transportation chief Yang Kaituo involves Li Anbang, because they both go through the same madam who has been bribing Yang Kaituo for years, subcontracting engineering projects out to other business people. Ma Zhongcheng, the deputy director of a municipal department of environmental protection, has led an unremarkable life through his middle-age until he suddenly gets promoted; one afternoon when he is away from home and feeling pleased with himself and a bit restless, he is beckoned into a bathhouse where he meets the older but still-attractive “foot-washing madam.” She administers her special services to him, and he has no idea that her true identity is….

The novel meticulously describes the experiences of these four characters in the style of a pointillist painting, with the feeling of gravity increasing as they near their downfalls. It’s exactly as Kong Shangren writes in The Peach Blossom Fan: “I saw the crimson balconies rise,/ I saw the feasting of the guests;/ I have seen all lie in ruins.” The extreme sense of excitement that builds as these individual lives are pushed to the brink stands in stark contrast to their uninteresting and unappealing behavior.

Liu Zhenyun maintains the habits of an avant-garde writer, and he likes to play around with his narrative. Strange Bedfellows strays from the norm much more than I Did Not Kill My Husband (我不是潘金莲): its preface is 197,000 characters, while its main text is only 3,000—about the size of a middle-school essay. Reaching the end is like a bowstring breaking—with a sudden snap, the fun is over. From a structural perspective, the parts of I Did Not Kill My Husband are linked up as closely as in a game of “beat the drum, pass the flower,” while Strange Bedfellows is more like a round dance, la ronde.

Over a hundred years ago, the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler wrote the play La Ronde (Reigen), comprised of ten scenes. Each of the characters, five male and five female, appear in two consecutive scenes, with a different partner in each one; this creates a big loop that ends where it began. In this game of life, the differences amongst the characters in age, identity, and social class don’t really exist, and they are governed only by naked desire. It’s very compatible with Freud’s theories.

Strange Bedfellows is similar—in the face of sex, differences such as age, identity, and social class are wiped away. Laying on the bed, everyone is nothing more than a body of flesh and blood. In this novel, however, they are governed not simply by pure sexual desire, but by several other competing things: power and the desire to rise above others, or at least to avoid the emptiness of death. The novel also includes some secondary characters, such as Qi Yafen, who uses sex as a means of revenge.

Liu Zhenyun’s work can fit into roughly three categories. His early works, which may be considered New Realism, very perceptively describe daily life. His middle works are concerned with history and the countryside, and the experimental style of his writing is quite pronounced; examples of this are his Hometown trilogy and Remembering 1942 (温故1942). Now he seems to have entered a new phase, which is both historical and realist, both abstract and a listing of events. I feel like there is no harm in calling this his period of “historical anecdote,” which takes street gossip as its main source. Strange Bedfellows directly draws upon social events in the news and takes them as the novel’s main materials—for example, “Mr. Smiles” at the scene of a bridge collapse (a government official at the scene of the accident who was caught smiling inappropriately, the photo of which spread all over the internet). One time when I was out of the country, I went to a very interesting exhibition in which the artists had taken photographs and painted on them, using the contents of the photos as the basis for their imaginative developments. On a photo of an ordinary street, for example, the artist might paint a sea of monsters with people running for their lives, giving the sense that a new era of a great flood is coming. The style of Strange Bedfellows is a bit like this, inserting fictional characters into real events in the news in order to experience and feel the force of the events’ impacts. It also allows readers to see these real events from a new perspective and gain a completely new understanding of them.

Translator’s note: English translation from K’ung Shang-jen, The Peach Blossom Fan. Trans. Chen Shih-hsiang and Harold Acton, with the collaboration of Cyril Birch. University of California Press, 1976. p. 309.

Reading Strange Bedfellows, the second feeling that strikes me is that Liu Zhenyun seems to be all smiles, but at its heart, the work is actually as serious as the God of the Old Testament, and the world described is one of retribution. The novel is fun to read, but it carries a heavy sense of admonishment.

Liu Zhenyun’s important works, like those of Mo Yan, repeatedly reflect revolutionary themes—a major, singularly fascinating topic in contemporary Chinese literature. In his recent story “Embroidered Clothes” (People’s Literature 2017, issue 9), set against the backdrop of the Xin Hai Revolution, Mo Yan writes about revolutionaries who wear embroidered clothing that allows them to embody mysterious, propitious things (roosters, for instance, symbolize revolutionary foresight—“when the rooster crows, all is clear”). As the masses become familiar with these revolutionaries and grow to love them, and then join forces with them, they are like paper-cut art, and they become very popular. Before long, they return to a romantic warmth of a time before the revolution.

I Did Not Kill My Husband and Strange Bedfellows both seem more like post-revolutionary texts—they have more of a chilly, tattered feeling, which Liu mollifies by adding an excellent dose of humor. If you can laugh, it means that the situation can’t be that terrible, and that it can still probably be salvaged. Whether it’s the sense in I Did Not Kill My Husband that “officials are demons, people are devils,” or the theme of “sleep with everyone” in Strange Bedfellows, both novels still cause people to reflect, and they are good for more than just an easily-forgotten laugh.

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