"The Curse", by A Yi, translated by Julia Lovell
Kevin McGeary, 10/1/19
A Yi, who has been described by award-winning poet Bei Dao as ‘one of the most gifted Chinese authors of recent times,’ is known for his unflinching portraits of contemporary China. In short story “The Curse”, the setting is far away from the Economic Miracle. Modernity makes its presence felt in the form of the two central characters’ sons, but their lives are dominated by folk religion and the petty squabbles that characterize working class, rural life.
‘The Curse’ sets up its conflict from the first paragraph. Zhong Yonglian accuses her neighbour Wu Haiying of stealing her chicken. Weaker and less confrontational than Wu, Zhong seeks revenge by putting a curse on Wu Haiying, stating that if she did steal the chicken, her son will die.
Wu’s son arrives from a coastal boomtown, having made his money and brought along a lady friend whose pale skin and Mandarin accent suggest a high social class. However, his behaviour shows that mentally he has never really left the village. Zhong’s son later returns, having spent his time working in a factory whose unhealthy conditions are unfortunately necessary to power China as the new Factory of the World.
The ending feels inevitable but is no less powerful or agonising for this. A Yi demonstrates a talent for creating a gripping narrative, with characters who are engagingly flawed. Translator Julia Lovell sensitively handles A Yi’s sparkling prose, with an understanding that the target audience do not necessarily know much about China, eg describing Anhui Province as Anhui in the southeast.
In just a few thousand words, ‘The Curse’ pulls a lot of threads together without ever feeling dense or impenetrable. East meets West, rich meets poor, the machine meets the wilderness, and the ancient meets the modern.