“Notes on an epidemic” by Hon Lai-chu, translated by Andrea Lingenfelter
Andy Thomas, 15/9/17
The setting is traffic-slogged urban China. After an unexplained epidemic, the narrator wakes up in a hospital ward with other solitary people. “Only by strengthening people’s social networks can we stop the spread of viruses” says the doctor; perhaps this is the clue to an allegory. Compulsory rehousing follows, reassignment to a new apartment already populated by family roles, but missing a married daughter. The script requires her and her husband to have sex every Wednesday night with the others entitled to watch. Post-epidemic, new jobs are only to be found in new families.
There is much detail here on life as a married daughter in urban China, and the device of an epidemic quickly fades away. Episodes that have the veracity of records in a writer’s notebook enrich, illuminate and lengthen the text, weaving a complexity that is best approached by repeated reading.
Relying on the translation, I would have traded, for example: “Cleansing fluid” for “Cleanser”; “got out” for “gotten”; and “result” for “sequela”. But these are editorial issues with Standard English, while Lingenfelter succeeds in conveying a Chinese-language text to this English-language reader.
Overall, this story is an understated but shocking account of the conflict between society and individuality in China, with hints of authoritarian repression.
Sarah Darwin, 13/9/17
Taken from Hon Lai-chu’s short story collection, The Kite Family, “Notes on an Epidemic” begins as the unnamed narrator wakes in hospital after succumbing to the flu during the eponymous epidemic and follows her during an unsettling period of prescribed convalescence. It’s both gripping and intriguing from the outset. Then a few paragraphs later an arresting plot twist had me rubbing my hands with glee as I realised that the story was heading towards an eerie dystopia. Even better, it’s a dystopia that unfolds in dusty streets and densely clustered apartment blocks that will feel familiar to anyone who has visited Hong Kong or any large Chinese city.
I really don’t want to reveal anything about the plot because part of the pleasure of the initial read is the rapid volley of surprises as the narrator embarks on her convalescence. Then it starts to get really weird, then downright bizarre. This isn’t just because of the plot, it’s more the perplexing apathy and impassiveness of the characters (none of whom are named), the paragraphs that end in intriguing yet opaque thoughts from the narrator, and, naturally, the ending.
The writing style is unadorned and straightforward yet paints an incredibly vivid picture of a depersonalised society, shabby decay, sterile rooms, and unappetising food. This is complemented by a remarkably eloquent translation by Andrea Lingenfelter. Hon has been compared to Kafka, but while reading I was most often reminded of David Lynch films – the stifling atmosphere of Eraserhead and the narrative logic of Mulholland Drive.
While baffling, the story gives a lot of food for thought. Individualism versus collectivism is a clear theme, but we’re left to interpret what the author’s viewpoint or message may be – could it be a comment on the influence of mainland culture on Hong Kong (where the author is from)? Or the estrangement and loneliness caused by modern city life? Or something else entirely? There are also plenty of recurrent themes and symbolism to pick apart, so it stands up to repeated reads. In fact, it seems to become more cogent on each subsequent read.
For some readers, “Notes on an Epidemic” will be a delightfully challenging literary treat, yet for others it will be little more than an infuriatingly abstruse self-indulgent weird-fest.
Paul Woods, 8/9/17
The story concerns the lives of a small group of people who have survived a serious and in some cases fatal epidemic. At the beginning it reads like a fairly standard post-apocalyptic tale, written from the perspective of a group of survivors. However, after a short time the events are recounted through the eyes of a single young woman assigned to live in a flat with fellow survivors.
The apocalyptic story gradually turns into a kind of speculative fiction, as the woman finds herself part of an artificially constituted ‘family’ with specific and rather bizarre roles. Their lives are precisely regulated, even sexual behaviour. The strongly conformist regime under which the survivors must live enforces family, or at least family roles, whose holders can be substituted. Living alone is effectively forbidden for adults and human beings replace pets.
I like the way a SARS-like infection serves almost a pretext for the imposition of some form of totalitarian conformity. Who imposes this, where it takes place, and the true reasons for it are not revealed, and the reader is free to bring his or her own thinking to the story. Similarly, the storyteller and other characters make curious asides which temporarily distract the reader and give him or her the freedom to explore them as desired. There are semi-insights into the minds of people whose background and experience are relatively unknown.
In many ways the story seems to function at the surface and invites the reader to delve deeper into details and background which are not made available in the text. This makes it both a challenge and a pleasure for the reader.
The tale ends with a twist in that people coming across the principal storyteller years later are curious at and cautious of what they encounter, yet in fact what stands before them is a strange reflection of themselves. The reader is forced to rethink the odd elements in the story and the enforced conformity of people’s lives and wonder how all of this and what we bring to our reading of the story is actually a revelation of our own selves.