“The Man with the Knife” by Chen Xiwo, translated by Nicky Harman
Sam Hall, 23/2/18
Chen Xiwo’s “The Man with the Knife” opens with a young female poet inviting a famous (and older) male poet back to her apartment in the hope of currying favour with him as part of her pursuit of literary success. He soon begins to make persistent and unwanted sexual advances, which she is unable to fend off, both for fear of offending him and also because she is overpowered.
You’d be forgiven for assuming “The Man with the Knife” to be something akin to the recently viral New Yorker piece, “Cat Person” –– that is, a relatively straight-forward, if scathing, psychodrama that exposes the quotidian power imbalances and abuses bound up with sex. The language is similarly fast-paced and snappy, while the young poet’s internal monologue resembles the kind of ‘sexual gaslighting’ that the protagonist in “Cat Person” undergoes. Yet, unlike “Cat Person”, Chen’s piece isn’t part of any social movement as salient as #metoo, and leans far more heavily on satire and innuendo-charged symbolism to launch a wider interrogation of society’s moral depravity. Chen has a cheeky jab, for example, at loudbut-empty theorizing in the Chinese literary sphere when she tries to sober him up to discuss Foucault, Jameson and modernity (the ‘philosophy of the moment’), only to be rebuffed by his urgent base need to pee.
However, it is Chen’s use of the word ‘knife’ as a stand-in for penis that really makes this piece. At first, it’s a threatening weapon of masculinity used to dominate and subdue. But as soon as she submits, it turns flaccid and useless. Here the power dynamic is inverted as she makes him erect, rides him without contraceptive protection, and forces him to come – all without him feeling any pleasure. In the face of this symbolic emasculation, he ironically ends up cutting off his own penis with a kitchen knife.
While Nicky Harman’s translation reads fluidly, it seems strange that she chose not to translate the Chinese dao as ‘knife’ for much of the text, instead preferring the more ambiguous ‘it’. This obscures the piece’s central symbolic conceit and its climax in self-castration. Also, by rendering zhuishuirou as ‘boiled-pork’ instead of the ‘water-pumped pork’, the carnal eroticism of the sexual encounter is elided, as is its sadomasochistic element when Harman renders zhemo as ‘ordeal’ instead of the more literal ‘torture’. These renderings are unfortunate because they hide the carefully constructed symbolism and might distract readers from appreciating Chen deft literary skills. Much like the Ming classic Jinpingmei or the contemporary writing of Wang Xiaobo, Chen’s piece uses sexual licentiousness not merely for shock-value, but ultimately as a way of exhibiting the complex complicities and moral depravities of modern society.