"A View of the Hills" by Lao Ma translated by Li Qisheng and Li Ping
Andreea Chirita, 29/9/17
Yangyang is a third grader from an unknown town in China who writes an extraordinary, heart-breaking letter to the Mayor. The boy decries, with childlike innocence, the pollution mist that prevents him from seeing the hills across from the flat he newly moved to. As soon as I spotted the name of this flash-fiction piece, "A View of the Hills", along with the name of the boy (Poplar Light, in literal translation), I knew I was in front of an ironic, biting, but endlessly emotional take of unconventional author Lao Ma on China’s environmental issues. Nevertheless, the ecocritical narrative texture of this short essay included in Individuals (2015) is rather a powerful argument for constructing the real theme of the story: the pitiful cynicism and lack of vision of Chinese neoliberal world, caught in its impotency to discern between truth and illusion.
A simply crafted, yet affectively disturbing punchline comes at the end, when “Uncle Mayor” blames Yangyang’s blurred view of the hills on his alleged poor eyesight. Rationally, that is the moment when you, as a reader, don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instinctively, you would simply burst into laughter, still grasping the fact that purity and hopelessness are the two clashing sides of Chinese troubled spleen, torn between human grace and the must of economic success at all costs. The incongruence between the boy’s complex simplicity and the intriguing funny baldness of the Mayor’s reaction unsettles your nervous system. Yet, it is Lao Ma’s unique humor that takes over your emotions and makes you rediscover, in his words, “a primary, raw kind of laughter, vital, opposed to the falsity and to the superficial”.
The translation keeps to the clear, short lines, elegant grammar, and unsophisticated vocabulary of the source text, which is a trademark of the author’s punchy style in articulating a very Chinese approach to humor. That is “laughter” as aesthetic category per se. Laughter generated by this story is “more comprehensive than humor itself”, due to its very lack of “pretentious refinements and complexes of superiority”. These would deprive the reader of genuine sympathy for both Yangyang and Uncle Mayor, unlike Lao Ma’s bawdy, non-elitist humor. Yet, his aesthetic of laughter leaves room for a lot of metaphysical possibilities for you to dig into the paradoxes of any global social reality, not just the Chinese.