The Book of Shanghai, by various authors

Edited by Dai Congrong & Dr Jin Li

by Wang Anyi, Xiao Bai, Shen Dacheng, Chen Danyan, Cai Jun, Chen Qiufan, Xia Shang, Teng Xiaolan, Fu Yuehui & Wang Zhanhei

Translated by: Lee Anderson, Yu Yan Chen, Jack Hargreaves, Paul Harris, Frances Nichol, Christopher Macdonald, Carson Ramsdell, Josh Stenberg, Katherine Tse, and Helen Wang.

Comma Press, 2020

Publisher’s Blurb

As the end of the world arrives in downtown Shanghai, one man’s only wish is to return a library book…

When a publisher agrees to let a star author use his company’s attic to write in, little does he suspect this will become the author’s permanent residence…

As Shanghai succumbs to a seemingly apocalyptic deluge, a man takes refuge in his bathtub, only to find himself, moments later, floating through the city’s streets…

The characters in this literary exploration of one of the world’s biggest cities are all on a mission. Whether it is responding to events around them, or following some impulse of their own, they are defined by their determination – a refusal to lose themselves in a city that might otherwise leave them anonymous, disconnected, alone.

From the neglected mother whose side-hustle in collecting sellable waste becomes an obsession, to the schoolboy determined to end a long-standing feud between his family and another, these characters show a defiance that reminds us why Shanghai – despite its hurtling economic growth –remains an epicentre for individual creativity.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Kate Costello, 8/6/20

The Book of Shanghai is a short story collection at its best: the stories collected are varied and fresh, offering an unexpected, intimate and poignant portrait of the city.

It’s only natural that a literary tribute to contemporary Shanghai would start with Wang Anyi. ‘Ah Fang’s Lamp’ sets the tone for the rest of the collection from the very first sentence: “People often have grey days, just as there are sometimes grey skies.” Her languorous pacing and emotive description leave the reader with a bittersweet sensation, a lingering sadness that doesn’t quite arrive at nostalgia. The story is a compassionate exploration of chance encounters and the narratives we construct around them. Wang Anyi memorializes the prosaic, the mundane, and the insignificant. In this way her story can be seen as a miniature of the collection as a whole, commemorating Shanghai as a living city, its side streets on wet grey days and bright sunny days, abandoned in the dripping rain or boisterous with the laughter of children.

The stories that ensue paint a portrait of Shanghai’s unseen details. The collection is remarkably cohesive, united by these concrete details that all too often escape our notice—the waving leaves of the camphor trees that stretch skyward, the grey little alleys, the benevolent face of a taxi driver, the old lady collecting bottles, the boy who “hopped out of the doorway like a flea” (26), the smell of scallion pancake.  The architectural features that the city is renowned for also appear, but they are dwarfed by the human relationships that are forged or thwarted beneath their proud silhouette. The collection is an homage to relationships, real or imagined, actualized or impossible. While the city is often represented in the popular imagination as a site of alienation and thwarted promise, these short stories show a different side of the city: a refuge where people can take comfort in the familiar. Where closeness can provide a moment of solace, even if it is dreamed. There is no shortage of estrangement in these stories, but the face it takes is less radical and less dehumanizing than usual. In these stories, estrangement can also be a kind of comfort.

The collection is remarkable for bringing together such a wide variety of authors and literary styles. Each story that unfolds is a surprise, and the varied pacing makes the book enjoyable to read straight through without the feeling of inertia that accompanies some short story collections. The range of translators also breathes life into the portrayal of the city, as each story has its own diction and idiosyncrasies. While too many different voices can be a distraction in a translated collection, it serves well here. The only instance that jolted me out of the Shanghai ambience was Ah-Ming’s declaration that living downstairs, “Saves you from having to schlep upstairs” (85),  followed by the interjection “Oi, old woman!” (86), which made me think for just a moment that she might in fact be a Jewish grandma.

The characters that emerge in this collection are memorable and distinct, even after one has put the book down. This is the mark of a successful short story collection, if a few days later, the characters are still pacing around in your head with a life of their own. The twists and turns of this collection and its evocative details linger long after reading. Inside during quarantine, my mind keeps returning to Ah Fang’s son, still sleeping despite the pelting rain; to the writer, frenzied in his attempts to finish his trilogy; to Ms. Zhuge, with her steak and wine and dancing stars; to Ah-Ming and her apartment full of rubbish.

To compile a collection that lives up to the name The Book of Shanghai is no easy task, and the editors Jin Dai and Li Congrong should be commended for bringing together such a vivid and wide-reaching collection of stories. With such an immense body of texts to choose from, the collection could easily expand to an unwieldy size or lose any sense of cohesion. Jin Dai and Li Congrong’s steadfast focus and editorial vision makes this collection a great success. The authors and translators featured are a great representation of what makes Chinese literature today so exciting.

Reviewed by Kate Costello

Reviewed by Ruth Matanda, 4/6/20

The city of Shanghai has long been imagined as a place unlike any other in China, an international and affluent city with infinite possibilities where people from all over the world and of different social classes live side by side, centred between the traditional and modern China. The Book of Shanghai, which is a collection of short stories by established and emerging writers, presents to us the lives of different individuals from all walks of life and how they navigate living in a city where impossible events become possible and as a result reality becomes stranger than fiction. The idea of Shanghai being a strange place where bizarre events happen is most prominent in stories such as ‘Suzhou River’, ‘The Novelist in the Attic’ and ‘State of Trance’ where the authors utilise elements of magical realism to explore the theme of identity, particularly its creation and fragility; the characters in each of these stories are presented as experiencing an internal mental struggle. ‘Suzhou River’ focuses on the power of the human imagination and Cai Jun imagines what could happen if the self is placed under immense stress or harbours feelings of fear, in the case of the protagonist the fear of reuniting with the woman he has loved for many years seems to result in a prolonged state of anxiety which causes the whole city to flood and residents to drown. Chen Dacheng’s ‘The Novelist in the Attic’ also explores the concept of creation of the self (or multiple selves) albeit in a more morbid manner. This story was the one which left the biggest impression on me, I enjoyed the shift in tone and the sharp contrast between the beginning of the story (which was quite innocent, following the dreams of an emerging author) and the end which takes a rather dark turn. The subtle commentary which the story makes on a society which demands their creatives to push themselves to the brink of insanity to achieve perfection was very well executed by Chen.

For me each of the stories in the collection conveys a feeling of desperation, loneliness and emptiness, emotions which contrast to living in a large city which seems to connect so many people, yet only on the surface. There is a general apathetic attitude conveyed by some of the protagonists and almost all of the secondary characters. A good example of this is in Wang Zhanhei’s ‘The Story of Ah Ming’ where I was saddened by the attitude which Ah Ming’s neighbours and old friends had towards the slow deterioration of her mental health, instead of helping her, they pass judgement and treat her as an outcast, someone no longer useful to society. Tales such as ‘The Story of Ah Ming’ gave me the feeling that the authors were not trying to demonise Shanghai but rather were trying to highlight that perhaps the problem lies with the inhabitants who struggle with defining who they are as individuals due to the superficial nature of their relationships. This insecurity in their identity causes the occurrence of supernatural events or loss.

Despite being short, each story has many layers to unpack, furthermore the ambiguity which almost all of the authors deploy (the characters’ intentions and causes of the events are often left unexplained) means that the stories are open to many different interpretations. Another thing I enjoyed was the pacing as each of the stories are well contained and the decision to focus on only one or two characters strengthened the feeling of the characters being alone despite being in an immense city like Shanghai; interactions with others are often short and as readers we feel the disconnect that the characters feel to their society and each other.

Due to the diversity of genres (from science fiction to classical romanticism and even surrealism) this is a great book which has something for everyone. It exposes the reader to the different sides of Shanghai, from the mundane lives of the working class in ‘Ah Fang’s Lamp’ to navigating family drama and infidelity in ‘Bengal Tiger’ and ‘Transparency’.

Overall I think this is a brilliant anthology that is about people trying to connect to others to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance whilst trying keep themselves sane and afloat in a city that feels like it is constantly on the brink of collapsing.

Reviewed by Ruth Matanda