June 2020: The Book of Shanghai

The characters in this literary exploration of one of the world’s biggest cities are all on a mission. Whether it is responding to events around them, or following some impulse of their own, they are defined by their determination – a refusal to lose themselves in a city that might otherwise leave them anonymous, disconnected, alone. 

Comma Press

This month we continue our focus on The Book of Shanghai, the latest in the ‘Reading the City‘ series from Comma Press, edited by Dai Congrong and Dr Jin Li and published in collaboration with the Manchester Confucius Institute. You can see our feature on Cai Jun, one of the authors featured in the collection, in our May book club, and read his story both in Chinese and in English translation, by Frances Nichol.

We spoke to two of the translators about their work on the book for our ‘Talking Translation‘ blog series:

Katherine Tse translated the story ‘Transparency’, by Xiao Bai:

“On the surface, ‘Transparency’ is the story of a private eye hired to watch a husband, who may or may not be cheatingand culminating with the truth they uncover. The relationship isn’t the way it looks to the private eye – or to the outside eye. Neither is the story, which turns into a careful examination of a relationship built on subterfuge and mutual necessity.

With translating any literature, one of the challenges for me is finding the narrator’s voice. It’s not just retelling the story in a different language but retelling it the way the narrator meant it, in their particular tonestyle, and insinuations. But in ‘Transparency’, we know very little about the narrator’s gender, background, family life – anything that can inform the way they think of relationships, the lens through which they watch this coupleIt was challenging but rewarding to grapple with the text in that way, to convey a distinct personality and the unspecified, unspoken details that round out a narrator.

Despite that, I loved the way this story humanised Shanghai. It reminded me of Humans of New York: that people aren’t just how they appearhow they dressor any other measure of superficial appearances. They’re a mess of stories, decisions, and motivations that propelled them into the present. On the outside, the married couple sound like they’re on their way up: cars, tailored clothing, gym memberships, and all. But their relationship is almost transactional; they’re playing games with each other, parasitic to the point of exploiting even the private eye.”

And Jack Hargreaves translated ‘The Novelist in the Attic’, by Shen Dacheng:

“Since it’s a bit of an unexpected thriller, I’m hesitant to give too much away, but it was a lot of fun to read and just as much fun to translate. I guess the most pressing thing to say is don’t be put off by the fact that the story’s protagonist is a writer, as some readers are. If you can get past that, the twist will blow your socks off. Since that story, I’ve read Shen Dacheng’s newest collection, Asteroids in the Afternoon (《小行星掉在下午》), and translated two of the stories from it. One is ‘Little Miss Box Person’. It’s about a young man, hopelessly in love with the girl he might never get, which sounds simple enough until you’re told they live in an epidemic-stricken city, and something as everyday as a stroll sees him hosed down with disinfectant, subjected to compulsory blood tests and rammed aside by the rich who live in sealed boxes to protect them from the pathogen. It’s eerily redolent of the current situation given that she wrote it two years ago, and downright frightening as a dystopic glimpse of our own future.

The thing that I’ve enjoyed most about reading and translating her work is how playful a writer she is, both in terms of the stories’ premises and her use of language. An example of the latter are her descriptions of sound that are both hilarious and frankly bizarre, they’re like slapstick cut scenes that momentarily whisk you somewhere else entirely.”

Nicky Harman also talks to some of the translators, and editor Dai Congrong, on the Asian Books Blog.

And the collection is the most recent addition to our Book Review Network, and we’re starting to get the reviews in already.

Kate Costello writes:

“The stories that ensue paint a portrait of Shanghai’s unseen details. The collection is remarkably cohesive, united by these concrete details that all too often escape our notice—the waving leaves of the camphor trees that stretch skyward, the grey little alleys, the benevolent face of a taxi driver, the old lady collecting bottles, the boy who “hopped out of the doorway like a flea” (26), the smell of scallion pancake.  The architectural features that the city is renowned for also appear, but they are dwarfed by the human relationships that are forged or thwarted beneath their proud silhouette. The collection is an homage to relationships, real or imagined, actualized or impossible. While the city is often represented in the popular imagination as a site of alienation and thwarted promise, these short stories show a different side of the city: a refuge where people can take comfort in the familiar. Where closeness can provide a moment of solace, even if it is dreamed. There is no shortage of estrangement in these stories, but the face it takes is less radical and less dehumanizing than usual. In these stories, estrangement can also be a kind of comfort.”

And Ruth Matanda observes that the collection, “presents to us the lives of different individuals from all walks of life and how they navigate living in a city where impossible events become possible and as a result reality becomes stranger than fiction. The idea of Shanghai being a strange place where bizarre events happen is most prominent in stories such as ‘Suzhou River’, ‘The Novelist in the Attic’ and ‘State of Trance’ where the authors utilise elements of magical realism to explore the theme of identity, particularly its creation and fragility; the characters in each of these stories are presented as experiencing an internal mental struggle. ‘Suzhou River’ focuses on the power of the human imagination and Cai Jun imagines what could happen if the self is placed under immense stress or harbours feelings of fear, in the case of the protagonist the fear of reuniting with the woman he has loved for many years seems to result in a prolonged state of anxiety which causes the whole city to flood and residents to drown.”

We’re always looking for new reviewers to join us, so if you’re interested in Chinese fiction in translation, please do get in touch!