Tencent News, 30th October, 2012
By Bai Ye
Translated by Todd Foley
Ever since his 2009 work Someone To Talk To (一句顶一万句), Liu Zhenyun has been demonstrating a new way of writing novels: while it seems like he randomly writes whatever he pleases, he actually uses an endlessly winding narrative to take seemingly simple daily trifles and gradually build them into something big and hugely complicated.
The protagonist of Someone To Talk To, Yang Baishun, is always searching for someone with whom he can really talk, but the conversation is never really gratifying, and something always goes wrong. The baffling result is that his name ends up getting changed, along with his fate, and he somehow ends up farther and farther away from his hometown of Yanjin with no way of returning. If we say that Someone To Talk To has a circuitous narrative, then I Did Not Kill My Husband, which centers around the lawsuit of country wife Li Xuelian, may be considered to have a natural spontaneity of the highest quality. Liu Zhenyun, therefore, is able to seamlessly join life with art, having found a unique way to face reality head-on and penetrate into life.
The story of Li Xuelian, which seems quite blunt, in fact gradually leads the reader into a winding and gentle sort of beauty, delivering something unexpected where everything at first seemed quite ordinary. Here, Liu Zhenyun does the most masterful job of employing his “snowballing” method of narration. Li Xuelian’s story, as expressed by Liu Zhenyun, can’t help but be wonderfully compelling.
The origins of Li Xuelian’s lawsuit are actually quite simple: in order to avoid being punished for having a second child with her husband Qin Yuhe, the two get divorced with the intention of remarrying. But after getting divorced, Qin Yuhe marries another woman. Beside herself with rage, Li Xuelian wants to go back to their original plan, but she finds herself without any recourse. First she goes to the judge, Wang Gongdao, to see if her “fake” divorce from Qin Yuhe can be overturned—never thinking that he would ignore the emotional context and immediately refuse solely on the basis of the law. The determined Li Xuelian then seeks out Dong Xianfa, who is a standing member of the judicial committee, and Chief Justice Xun Zhengyi. After they also refuse her request, she goes to the county magistrate, Shi Weimin, and the mayor, Cai Fubang. Having failed with both the courts and the government, she then goes to seek out her former husband, Qin Yuhe, wanting only to hear him say that at the time they divorced, it had in fact been a “fake divorce.” To her surprise, however, Qin Yuhe instead brings up the fact that when they originally got married, she wasn’t a virgin, and he calls her a shameless “Pan Jinlian,” the famous adulteress from Plum in the Golden Vase. This only increases Li Xuelian’s anger and makes her feel that if she stops her pursuit now, it will amount to a tacit admission of guilt in the face of Qin Yuhe’s mischaracterization—which for her is not an option. Whereas she had previously merely been seeking some official recognition of the situation, she now wants to clear her name—so the lawsuit becomes her only way of righting the wrong she has suffered. For twenty years, she ends up stubbornly devoting herself to the lawsuit, working her way from the village level to the county, city, and provincial levels. At one point or another, all of these officials are touched by her story, which becomes the area’s longstanding “difficult case.”
Li Xuelian’s story starts from something small and expands outwards in many directions; what began as a private matter becomes something public, and what began as a marriage issue becomes a political one. The work’s approach is not that unusual, but it is extremely effective. The events develop naturally by following the different attitudes and behavioral logic of different characters and different places, but these differences in attitude and logic are not compatible and are often contradictory, so we helplessly look on as the events unfold according to a number of opposing wishes and desires. In this novel, each character operates according to their own logic, which is not without a rational system, although any effective interconnection or mutual consideration is clearly lacking—for example, mutual understanding requires mutual trust, and mutual trust requires mutual tolerance, etc. The officials at the various levels of government all try to avoid trouble where they can, either trying to hide or pass the buck. This means not only that Li Xuelian’s case doesn’t get appropriately resolved, but that fewer and fewer people show any interest in helping her, to the extent that the whole thing becomes a joke. So, for what began as a small personal matter, Li Xuelian ends up journeying farther and farther afield, seeking out more and more people, becoming angrier and angrier, and turning the case into something much larger. In other words, a small snowball rolls into a big one, an ant grows into an elephant, and a sesame seed grows into a watermelon.
As I Did Not Kill My Husband progresses through the travails of Liu Xuelian, because of the discrepancies between these different attitudes and outlooks on life, the work actually exposes the basic form of life for the common people at the bottom rung of society. That is, every domain has its own inherent rules and potential interests, and the rules and interests of this sort of self-created system combine to create what looks like a kind of order, but which is actually a cold, overwhelming atmosphere. Ultimately, whatever the characters do, no one else has the right to care, and they couldn’t do anything about it, anyway. For someone like Li Xuelian, who has been wronged and who loves the fight, this whole system not only doesn’t help her solve her problem, but it creates more problems, and they hopelessly pile up. In this sense, Li Xuelian’s pursuit of her lawsuit for over twenty years without any resolution is not only the tragic story of her own fate, but it is also like measuring the conditions of life at the bottom level of society by throwing an egg against a rock—the result of which is that several functionary departments do not have much positive use, and that the foundation of society is lacking the sort of harmony it needs. Li Xuelian saying “I am not Pan Jinlian” is a clear declaration of her innocence, but at the same it expresses her feelings of helplessness and resentment, sparking people’s awareness and reflection on a number of levels and in various ways.
In I Did Not Kill My Husband, Liu Zhenyun demonstrates his new approach to writing, which delivers a pleasant surprise. In general, drama is found in the most ordinary of characters, and poetry in the most ordinary of lives. The work marks a high point of Liu’s wisdom and artistic skill, which form an organic harmony. In doing this, Liu links together many seemingly unrelated and completely contradictory things—the individual and the universal, the accidental and the inevitable, the refined and the vulgar, the explicit and the implicit, the ordinary and the unusual, the plain and the luxurious, the trifling and the important, the simple and the complicated, the serious and the humorous, the happy and the sad, etc. The combinations of all of these different elements and all of these intended meanings, furthermore, are all dependent upon language, which turns them into details that permeate the feeling of the work and become embedded in the narrative. As long as you read the book seriously in one go, the story comes at you thick and fast, and everything in it is put to good use. Reading a novel that is this elegantly uninhibited is better than taking a stroll through a peaceful garden, and this is an important mark of a novelist who has continued to mature and improve.
I like this direction that Liu Zhenyun has headed, because his writing has realized both reality and literature; the book is fun to read, but also worth serious examination.