A Flock of Brown Birds by Ge Fei

translated by Poppy Toland

(Penguin Australia 2016)

Publisher’s blurb

In this avant garde novella, memory and time are subjective. A writer named Ge Fei retreats to the beautiful solitude of the Waterside to finish his novel inspired by the Revelations of St. John. He perceives ominous and portentous signs in the natural landscape around him, particularly in a flock of brown birds that flies periodically past his window. The arrival of a mysterious woman named Qi magnifies his anxiety and sense of temporal disorientation, calling into question his grasp on reality.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Todd Foley, 2/10/17

When I first read Flock of Brown Birds, slowly and laboriously, seven years ago for a literature class at Peking University, it was an experience I would have to characterize as more difficult and confusing than enjoyable. Even so, many details of this intriguing avant-garde novella have stuck with me ever since—the Penguin Inn, the wooden combs, the broken bridge, and, of course, the eponymous birds, all left me with an impressionistic memory of a bizarre story that presented a scrambled perception of time, place, and reality. I was very happy to discover that this important work had been translated into English, allowing me to both revisit it casually and also subject it to more rigorous analysis in my undergraduate literature classes.

Upon reading Poppy Toland’s fluid and straight-forward translation, I soon discovered that the plodding pace of my first reading had likely not been entirely due to my level of Chinese. Although short, the story is demanding, and not really to be fully consumed (much less digested) “in your lunch hour,” as the Penguin Specials series that publishes it suggests. As we might expect from Ge Fei, the story has no clearly defined plot, but is instead an entanglement of hazy memories and ambiguous present encounters. The protagonist, “Ge Fei” himself (keeping in mind that Ge Fei is the author’s penname), is in the midst of writing a novel in seclusion when he is visited by Qi, a mysterious woman who claims to know him but whom he actually doesn’t recognize. He tells her the story of another mysterious woman he saw once in the Penguin Inn, and then meets again years later. In their second meeting, he discovers that the woman is in an abusive relationship with her alcoholic husband, who ends up drinking himself to death. Ge Fei steps in to fill his place and marries the woman, who then promptly dies of a cerebral hemorrhage on their wedding day. Qi leaves after listening to this story and then returns several years(?) later, although she has no recollection of Ge Fei or the time she spent with him.

Part of the reason that reading this novella requires such an investment is that, on the most concrete level, it is peppered with details that seem significant, giving the sense they are part of a puzzle that needs to be pieced together by the reader. The woman’s stroke, for example, is mentioned in the very first paragraph, and then forms the final unanticipated climax of the story Ge Fei tells Qi. In this sense the story harkens back to the author’s earlier work “The Lost Boat,” in which the protagonist’s eventual death comes as a surprise despite its heavy foreshadowing the whole way through. In Flock of Brown Birds, however, most of the details never really fit together so clearly. As he follows the woman—his eventual wife—to the wooden bridge, for instance, Ge Fei passes another cyclist and hears “the sound of friction as the material of our down jackets made contact” (16). Much later, the woman tells him it couldn’t have been her, although her husband had passed by the remnants of that bridge one snowy evening and seen tracks, and the next morning “a bike and a young person’s body was fished out of the river” (35). Does this mean Ge Fei is really dead, or has he written this tragic incident into his own personal memory? Details like this, much like the migratory brown birds that fly past his apartment everyday, often cycle round in the story, although their connections and significance ultimately remain unclear. This technique effectively undermines the presence of a rational order, and it makes the story stand apart from similarly hallucinatory works by authors like Can Xue, whose approach is not so overtly structured and technical.

More importantly, I think, these misfit puzzle pieces work as part of a larger effort to undermine any notion of existence outside of the protagonist’s subjective reality. Is the story he tells Qi completely fictional? While he presents it as a recounting of facts, “thinking that any embellishment or attempt to add intrigue would destroy its purity” (11), Qi responds as if it is an entirely fabricated account, complaining that he has given it “such a banal ending” (21) and that it too predictably adheres to the “formula of love” (14). The only connection between Ge Fei and the past he relates is his memory, which he describes as “a rusty chain, disintegrating link by link into dust” (44). The novel he is writing, furthermore, “seems to have completely destroyed [his] memory” (9). This of course poses fundamental questions to the very idea of narrative, undermining any claims to represent truth or an objective view of history. The political implications are subtle but present: both Ge Fei and Qi agree that “memory is power” (11), and Qi’s name in Chinese means “chess,” suggesting there is perhaps some sort of tactical element hidden in the differences between Ge Fei’s recounting of events and the version she apparently already knows.

Through its experimental form and intellectual depth, Flock of Brown Birds can offer a number of different productive and rewarding readings, and it is well worth it to expend the effort. I think Toland’s translation is a particularly valuable contribution to the works of contemporary Chinese literature available in English, and I enjoyed reading it!   

Reviewed by Todd Foley.