Saturday, December 10, 2016

On the Border

Third on my Chinese novel reading list was 邊城 Border Town, by 沈從文 Shěn Cóngwén.  This slender volume, occupying only seventy or so pages at 16 point Chinese type on my tablet, was the shortest of the four I read, by a substantial margin, and by the time I got to it, I had advanced sufficiently in my literacy that I was able to read through this book in about two weeks.

Central to the story are an old boatman, who ferries travellers both ways across a river, where the old pagoda he lives in sits, along with his daughter and his dog.  The action, such as there is, concerns a love triangle between the girl and two brothers of a wealthier businessmen from the nearby city, but even when the foreground is occupied by the youngsters, lurking in the background, everpresent, is the old man, as constant as the river and the boat he directs from bank to bank.  Meanwhile, the old ways—represented by the time-honored fashion in which the boys make their overtures to the boatman's daughter—are fighting their battle against the intrusion of the modern world, with occasionally tragic casualties.

Shen Congwen grew up, I gather, in the sort of village he depicts in Border Town, and his reverence for the town and the people who inhabit it are palpably present in his prose.  He has been called the Chinese Faulkner, and the comparison is apt, though I also see hints of Hemingway in him.  Although in English comparative literature, the two, stylistically, are likely as not to be contrasted rather than paired, they share with Shen Congwen a common appreciation for duty, and perseverence, and quiet endurance.  At the same time, Shen Congwen draws a stark spotlight on the consequences of the quietness of that endurance, for oftentimes things, and people, are gone before we have had time to appreciate what they have gone through.

The frequently somber tone of the Chinese that Shen produces is mirrored, reasonably accurately, by Jeffrey Kinkley's translation.  Like Howard Greenblatt's translation of Mo Yan's Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Kinkley's translation makes do without commentary, and the very occasional passages that require some understanding of Chinese language or culture are handled through parenthetical asides that don't distract from the often hypnotic rhythm of Shen's prose.  And that prose does not rely for the most part on obscure references anyway.

Border Town is a story of responsibility, and virtue, and the results of their collisions with chance and fate.  Told in its own unobtrusive way, it worms its way into your consciousness and without realizing it, you find yourself wondering how you would act, thrust into a different world, at a different time.

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