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#goodchinesereads ~ Sheng Keyi

"Fishbone" by Sheng Keyi, translated by Shelly Bryant

Flash reviews

Bing Wang, 7/6/18

This is my first time to read Sheng Keyi; the story caught my attention from the very beginning. The narrative begins with a fishbone stuck in the throat of the protagonist, Zhang Lixin, while eating at Great White, ‘one of the city’s most upscale restaurants’. The physical pain accompanied with what happens after ignites his reflections on life, work and marriage. Sheng presents this piece of work with a skilful collage of domestic occasions which encapsulate the quotidian. Her sharp writing skill and her sensitivity to the society render Zhang’s reflections simultaneously direct and sympathetic. This strikes a chord with me, and perhaps this holds true for many modern Chinese individuals.

This story consists of many layers of Chinese daily lives in an urban setting. The hierarchical relations at work, secretive office affairs, and complicated family issues are often explored themes. Starting from the fishbone, Zhang faces many dilemmas like common people. An unsuccessful career, unremembered in his position as a director, except by his de facto mistress, Zhao Yanling. An unhappy family, unsatisfying sex life with his wife and cold shoulder from his son. An unsuccessful treatment to get rid of the fishbone by the doctors, be they in ‘a small clinic’ or ‘a hospital’s ENT ward’. As long as the fishbone exists, Zhang Lixin’s dilemma continues. The ending of this story is left open as the reader does not know if Zhang divorces his wife, nor does one know what happens later. It may lead to another dilemma.

The difficulty of translating this story may be a consequence of an excessive use of verbs. When reading the Chinese publication, the feeling was strong. Shelly Bryant’s translation though somehow reduces a bit of the sharpness from Sheng, yet still vividly and precisely conveys the essence of this story. However, Shelly has also done a brilliant job in translating these actions into something familiar to English speakers and helps the work transcend time and space.

Stephanie Boote, 29/12/17

"Fishbone" by Sheng Keyi is a disquieting story following the events of a man’s life after he swallows a fishbone and subsequently gets it get stuck in his throat, causing him a great deal of discomfort.

The central motif of this story, the trapped fishbone, not only imparts uneasiness to us readers imagining this unpleasant situation, but also reflects the self centred nature of Zhang Lixin, the story’s protagonist. Whilst never needing to explicitly state that the character is selfish, Sheng Keyi cleverly represents his internal focus and external insensitivity with this unique use of imagery.

Furthermore, it’s ironic that Zhang Lixin is constantly reflecting inwards, concentrating on his physical pain, whilst never recognizing his real need for emotional introspection. This misfire of self analysis displays the wit of Sheng Keyi’s writing.

In my opinion, the very effectiveness of this motif displays the importance of including translated works of fiction in any bookworm’s library. For a westerner who may never have come across the dish of 清蒸鲑花鱼, the steamed fish which initially causes so much trouble, the thought of getting a fish bone caught in ones throat would not be considered a common problem. This means that we as readers are introduced to a different expression of imagery that therefore could not be considered cliché.

Sheng Keyi is known for gender commentary in her writing, especially in her novel Northern Girls, which deals in themes of gender, sex and power. I’ll be honest, the point of view character being male surprised me at first, as I was expecting an examination of a female character. However, the women of the story being described through the lens of Zhang Lixin effectively criticizes the ways women are viewed both in the home and the workplace. Sheng Keyi’s use of a male character also dissects the position of a man’s place in the home and workplace by displaying the pressures placed on him due to his gender.

In my opinion Sheng Keyi’s "Fishbone" is an interesting introduction to her writing and Shelly Bryant’s writing is an excellent translation of the ironic humour imparted in the story. Well worth a read!