Guangming Daily, 5th September, 2011
By Zhang Qinghua
Translated by Todd Foley
The original Chinese title of Someone to Talk To—literally “One Sentence is Worth Ten-Thousand Sentences”—implies the relationship between one sentence and ten thousand of them: while one sentence can be as good as ten thousand, on the other hand, ten thousand sentences might not necessarily say as much as just one. The phrase acts as a metaphor for the lives and fates of the novel’s protagonist Yang Baishun and his (nonbiological) grandson Niu Aiguo, neither of whom are ever truly able to talk with anyone. Though they both persevere throughout their lives, they always come up against a wall; they both yearn to communicate with others, but they are only ever met with trickery and ridicule. In the end, however, they are able to embark upon different life trajectories: Yang Baishun’s life could be characterized by “fleeing,” while Niu Aiguo’s could be characterized by “homecoming” or “searching for roots.”
This is a very interesting set-up. The novel uses the trajectories of the lives and fates of two rural villagers at the bottom of society to successfully develop and convey a theme. Within the existing structure of China’s agricultural society and culture, a cozy relationship between the clan system and traditional ethics exists on a superficial level; however, there is a basic contradiction in this structure, which is the profound feeling of loneliness that everyone in this environment experiences. This loneliness, as expressed in Henan’s Yanjin dialect, is that one simply “can’t talk” (说不着).
Someone To Talk To is therefore an allegorical novel of cultural criticism. Although it is written in a completely realistic, meticulous style—despite its overly elaborate description of China’s rural society, with all of its various local traditions and characters of all sorts—the novel ultimately demonstrates a cultural and philosophical metaphor: in this hornet’s nest, or anthill, of a social structure, there is a complicated and intricate cultural context, yet there is also a basic ruthlessness that makes life hard. The author writes from a “micro” perspective, yet not without a dramatically constructed symmetry. The first part of the novel narrates the experience of this culture and its hopelessness as an escape from hardship, which goes as far as the perpetual changing and forgetting of one’s own identity, as demonstrated by Yang Baishun changing his name on several occasions. The second half tells the corresponding story of Yang Baishun’s descendent, Niu Aiguo, and is dominated by some sort of “collective unconscious” that is forever entangled with his own past, identity, hometown, and family history. He wants to return home at any cost—to this spiritual and imaginary hometown that seems to excite as much as it disappoints. Written in these two contrasting parts, the novel can be seen as a Chinese version of Paradise Lost or the Book of Exodus.
The second thing to point out is the novel’s wonderfully amusing narrative style, which I refer to as a “narrow gate.” While the author intends to display the style of a great writer, when he sets his pen to paper, he makes only tiny incisions. He takes out all the elements and background of the “grand historical narrative” to meticulously sketch “a scene through a narrow gate,” which is intricate and complicated, and has no end in sight. The footprints left by the two protagonists are like countless intertwining branches or crisscrossing paths, and everything they experience through the courses of their lives is like a series of miniature, highly compact scenes from the totality of existence. What is interesting, however, is that in addition to the experiences of the protagonists, the work treats all characters and events with the random narrative style of the classical Chinese novel—all the stories in the novel are related according to necessity through an omniscient narrator, who has a complete grasp of the characters’ experiences and fates through a panoramic view. The stories of the secondary characters, furthermore, all act as appendices or springboards for the protagonists—they seem randomly thrown in and remain incomplete. Only the footprints of Yang Baishun and Niu Aiguo may be consistently traced throughout the novel. Although it is a complicated work with numerous characters and captivating stories, the narrative thread is actually quite clean and simple.
This novel demonstrates the excellence of Liu Zhenyun’s narrative art by establishing a very impressive kind of narrative: one that is thoroughly Chinese and traditional, yet with a completely modern form. Its structure and themes enable the seamless interweaving of interior and exterior. In this sense, the novel is not merely a work of cultural and intellectual value, but also a work of the highest narrative art, full of creativity and individuality. It stands as a symbol of how the art of Chinese fiction has continued to mature in recent years.Zhang Qinghua is a professor in the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Beijing Normal University.