I’ve been reading Cao Naiqian‘s There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night.
It’s an odd sort of book, and you can see why an academic press published it rather than commercial press. The stories are quite short, usually only a few pages, and the author is someone who does not really fit the model of the modern western writer, since he still works as a cop in the city of Datong, rather than chucking his job and writing full-time. He also does not write about being a policeman, but rather about life in the Wen Clan Caves. Although it is possible to criticize Mao’s Cultural Revolution for lots of things, sending city youth down to the countryside does seem to have an effect on Cao, giving him a window into how the other 90% lives that he is still looking through all these years later. ((According the the Introduction he was sent to supervise sent-down youth rather than being sent down himself)) The Wen Family Caves is a fictionalized version of the area he was sent down to, (a Chinese Yoknapatawpha County) and describing the lives of its inhabitants is his main purpose. The Chinese version is apparently written in a heavy Shanxi dialect, but pretty much all that comes through in the English translation is frequent use of the word fuck. This is rather appropriate, since food, work and sex seem to be about all the people in these stories are interested in. Building the revolution, getting ahead in society or even moving to the big city are goals that are so remote as to be non-existent.
I find the stuff about work interesting, just cause I always do, and because one of the things that makes peasants peasants is that their lives revolve around physical labor the way mine doesn’t. The food is mostly pretty gross, a bowl of oatmeal with wild garlic is about a fancy as these representatives of the world’s greatest cuisine get. There is an awful lot of sex, however. In fact, just as people in the book don’t have dreams of attending Beida, or meals consisting of 6 dishes for five people they also don’t have much for “regular” human relationships. Mostly people are struggling to survive (they live in holes in the ground) and only the most stripped down forms of courtship or family formation are going on, (marriage costs money) and lots of violations of propriety. One of the longer stories is Heinu and her Andi. Heinu was an old woman who had been something of the town prostitute (although it’s not clear if she was ever paid).
Poverty was one thing that had been handed down over generations in the village. Some men were so poor they could never take a wife. Heinu thought that chickens and dogs all mated. As a woman she couldn’t bear to see the men as less then chickens and dogs.
This led her to let Zhaozhao have sex with her after seeing him try to mount a ewe, and later having sex with most of the unmarried men. The men take care of her, and she burns spirit money to them after they are dead, since they have no family. When the story opens Heinu is rather old, and she has been given a chick by a traveling salesman who has been unable to sell his “Australian” (a word that means nothing to the villagers) chicks. She raises it (She never had any children) and it grows into an enormous black bird that is the envy of the village. At first it lays eggs and makes her “rich” but after an illness it stops laying eggs and starts mounting all the local hens (hence the name Andi). The roosters are not happy about this and gang up on Andi, but are defeated, leaving Andi with all the females (just as Heinu had been left with all the males years before.) Eventually Andi’s rebellion becomes too much for the villagers (Andi leads all the roosters and all the hens to crow not only at dawn but all day and night) and it ends badly. ((My students often complain that Chinese stories always end badly.)) Like most of the stories this one is very sparse in its narration, and presents a human relationship stripped down to its absolute minimum.
Of course another thing that makes the book great is that they sent it to me just because of this blog. Normally all I get is American History textbooks. Other publishers looking to have their books introduced to our tens of readers should take note.