translated by Nicky Harman
read by Sarah Lam
(Beijing Ruxue Media and Sodalite Productions)
Selected Stories by Xuemo is a collection of stories set on the Silk Road, exploring love, faith, life, and death. The first three stories depict the lives and relationships of outsiders in rural villages, and offer a contemporary perspective on the impact of rumor, pain, and suffering. The final novella is a survival story of two young women journeying through the desert, accompanied by camels and dholes.
These tales are a bridge to the novels by the author Xuemo. Xuemo’s writing is deeply influenced by his native roots in Gansu province and captures the essence of traditional Chinese culture. Xuemo is known as a spiritual writer whose work presents an alternative lifestyle for people today. His distinctive style combines hallucinatory realism with the depiction of the harsh reality of rural life, and the inner worlds of Chinese people. Xuemo’s work enjoys extensive media coverage and critical acclaim in China and is considered a quintessential example of literature from the western provinces.
Selected Stories by Xue Mo has been translated into more than 15 languages. This English version is translated by Sinologist Nicky Harman. The Guardian newspaper published one story – “Old Man Xinjiang” – in their five top short stories from contemporary China collection.
Reading Chinese Network Reviews
Reviewed by Roseanna Sonnenberg, 21/01/22
Since finishing the audiobook of Selected Stories by Xuemo a couple of days ago, I’ve been procrastinating about what to write. Today I realised what the reason for this is: I enjoyed the experience of listening to this particular audiobook so much, I didn’t want it to end – and by writing a review, it will be just that.
This is a collection of three short stories and a novella, all set on the Silk Road. All of the stories present us with main characters who are outsiders in the environments in which we find them. First we hear about a day in the life of Old Man Xinjiang. Arguably this is not the most eventful day. However, through Xue Mo’s great skill as a writer and Nicky Harman’s wonderful translation, his backstory is cleverly revealed to us. As Old Man Sun goes down on the day, we have been privileged to get to know the truth about a man who has had a lot to put up with in life; who isn’t bitter; who doesn’t need much and who takes pleasure from the simple things in life. A man teased by fellow villagers – but greatly admired by the story’s listener.
Second, we meet a husband and wife in the story ‘Beauty’. Beauty is a theme that runs through this tale – the fragility of beauty in the face of death. The erosion of youthful beauty by the destruction of illness. As we listen, we are pulled backwards and forwards through the waves of emotions that both husband and wife feel as the story unfolds. She has syphilis when they marry. He didn’t know. Did her parents know? Should he divorce her? Yes. No. She didn’t love him to start with. But she does now. If she dies, will he stay true to her and marry her in the next life?
As with ‘Old Man Xinjiang’, this too is a clever story. In a few short chapters, we learn a great deal about the lives of these rural villagers. Hopes and dashed dreams. The harshness of city living. Urbanisation and the greater power of the desert. The beauty of a wife waiting at the edge of the desert for her husband to return from the city on his motorbike: the joy of spotting rising dust and a distant speck on the horizon.
I would say that the third short story ‘The Crunching Of Broad Beans At Dead Of Night’ was the one I liked the ‘least’ – if that is the right way to put it: as this is what actually proves it is a great piece of fiction. This is a story that makes the listener feel unsettled and disturbed by what is happening. Yet somehow compelled to hear what happens next.
The main character, Snow, travels through the mountains in a time of famine, to visit her uncle, aunt and cousins. As soon as we meet these relatives, we start to feel uncomfortable. What has been going on here? What have they been up to? They aren’t to be trusted; they are unlikeable.
Although the characters do have rare moments where it is possible to feel compassion for them, this is ultimately a gritty story. The harsh reality of life in a time of famine sits alongside some dreamlike events that happen to Snow, as the story culminates in its finale.
It is a story full of clever accomplishment. Listeners come away with a wealth of information about the lives of this rural family, as we are taken on a story that weaves back and forth between current and past events.
All of the stories in this collection are phenomenal, but I would say that my absolute favourite is the novella ‘The Women, The Camels And The Dholes’. As with the other three stories, the concept appears quite simple – two women crossing the desert with two camels, to reach the salt pans. And yet, it is so much more. This is a story of survival; a look at life at its limits; at the barest of bones. It is extremely grounding.
We meet the dholes at the start of the novella, but their mark stays with us throughout. I knew nothing about dholes before I heard this story. Xue Mo opens a window into their world and the world of the desert at large. If I was ever lost in the desert, I would now know what plants to look for and what creatures to stay well away from. I know more about camels and their loyalties. And the beauty of the desert – the mountains, the hills, the cool dawn, the twinkling stars. As well as the danger of Old Man Sun and how to keep cool at midday.
Yet what makes this story so much more is the curtain that gradually pulls back to reveal the lives of these two rural village women. We hear private thoughts and are privy to confessions made. The way it is written and revealed is achingly beautiful. Like nothing I’ve come across before.
Which is also down to the brilliant narration by Sarah Lam.
Her voice and characterisation add even greater depth and energy to the collection of stories. Old men; young men; old women; young women; a camel’s thoughts – all are brought richly to life by the narrator’s depictions. The pace of the narration is also impeccable, allowing the listener to get caught up in the plot and absorb the vocabulary and imagery.
Since I finished listening to the audiobook, I have debated whether to read the collection of stories too. Maybe another day I will, as I have enjoyed the stories so much and don’t want to leave them behind. But for now, I would say to anyone else: start with the audiobook. The mix of Xue Mo’s writing; Nicky Harman’s translation and Sarah Lam’s narration are pitch perfect.
Reviewed by Roseanna Sonnenberg