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The Invisible Valley by Su Wei

Translated by Austin Woerner (Small Beer Press, 2018)

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Publisher's Blurb

Lu Beiping is one of 20 million young adults the Chinese government uproots and sends far from their homes for agricultural re-education. And Lu is bored and exhausted. While he pines for romance, instead he’s caught up in a forbidden religious tradition and married off to the foreman’s long-dead daughter so that her soul may rest. The foreman then sends him off to cattle duty up on Mudkettle Mountain, far away from everyone else.

On the mountain, Lu meets an outcast polyamorous family led by a matriarch, Jade, and one of her lovers, Kingfisher. They are woodcutters and practice their own idiosyncratic faith by which they claim to placate the serpent-demon sleeping in the belly of the mountains. Just as the village authorities get wind of Lu’s dalliances with the woodcutters, a typhoon rips through the valley. And deep in the jungle, a giant serpent may be stirring.

The Invisible Valley is a lyrical fable about the shapes into which human affection can be pressed in extreme circumstances; about what is natural and what is truly deviant; about the relationships between the human and the natural, the human and the divine, the self and the other.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe, 25/6/19

Reading the first dozen pages of Su Wei’s The Invisible Valley I was somewhat lost. Another youth account of the Cultural Revolution, patronisingly detailed for a Western readership I thought. This irritation and an inability to connect with the characters stuck with me for most of the novel until very close to the end when the author’s weaving of traditional Chinese poetry, brutal autobiography and Western literary references hit me. It was then that I could appreciate that The Invisible Valley was not so much an evolving story but an exercise in literary traditions and language.

Wei’s passion for fiction and language is shared by the translator, Austin Woerner, for whom I reserve my sincerest praise. He had me question whether the book was ever written in Chinese. His use of vernacular is so seamless that those who have never studied any Chinese dialect or literature will have no issue reading The Invisible Valley. Woerner lived this novel over years. After being invited by the author to translate the novel, Woerner tackled this ‘slalom’ of a translation by visiting Hainan with the author - where as a young man Wei was sent to be “re-educated” during the Cultural Revolution - so he could better evoke the descriptions of the original text. Why is the text a slalom? In the translator’s own words, it is a “…course of ‘untranslatable’ features: jargon from the Cultural Revolution, rustic Cantonese dialect, concepts from Chinese folk religion and mythology, classical poetry and prose, and various exotic plants and animals that have no names in English. All these elements give the novel a rich sense of locale. I knew that the way in which the language itself evoked a particular time and place was what made the novel special, and that these subtle flavours could easily be lost in translation.” Woerner takes inspiration from the likes of Tolkien in that he twists and invents English phrases to recreate Wei’s mix of historical realism and fantasy.

There are stunning turns of descriptive phrase and poignant character insights. An example that remains with me is “He counted again and again. He began wandering to and fro in the twilit valley, raising his voice in mounting anxiousness, not sure whether he was hunting for his stray cattle or for his own self, gone missing among the hills.” Yet, I was turned off by intermittent clauses inserted in brackets by the future narrator, which provided what I felt to be unnecessary comments on the plot.

Although the story is set during the 1960s, I am struck by the fact that the themes confronting the characters – sexuality, nature verses industry, adult responsibility and parenthood – are all just as pressing to today’s readers. Lu Beiping, the principal protagonist, is so desensitized by the Cultural Revolution he is only remotely amused by the deeming of fate that he should be ghost-married. However, the literal and metaphorical forces of nature he experiences whilst serving as a cowherd in the mountains reawaken his emotions. The Invisible Valley, for its occasional annoyances, provides a lyrical lesson for us all, time and geography disregarded, that one should reengage with the order of nature to truly feel and live again.

Reviewed by Tamara McCombe

Reviewed by Vicki Leigh, 8/8/18

If you go down to the woods today, you’ll be sure to see a Snakeweird, according to the politically charged mystical coming-of-age tale The Invisible Valley by Su Wei set in the tropical hinterland of Hainan during the Cultural Revolution, as seen through the (four) eyes of fatefully bumbling youngster Lu Beiping.

As one of approximately 20 million young citizens sent to far-flung corners of ‘down-country’ in order to be ‘agriculturally re-educated’ for political ends in the 1960s, how special can this Lu Beiping be? As it turns out, his arrival in the rural mountains from the city of Canton instigates a swirling turn of events for both himself and the residents of Mudkettle Mountain that will irrevocably change everything they thought they once knew.

Made to work as a cattle-hand, he inadvertently finds himself married to a deceased ‘bride’ so that her tortured soul may rest, and he soon uncovers a life outside of the Revolution cause that will later prove impossible to turn back from as he becomes deeply involved with an outcast, wood-cutting, polyamorous family with whom the matriarch, Jade, he falls in love.

Modern Chinese literature can be rife with both covert and overt references to sexuality, and The Invisible Valley is no exception. Allusions to repression of homosexual urges via hellish giant snakes that must be placated (‘you’ll wake the snake-air’), and Jade’s nether regions (‘so he pressed onward into that hidden valley, into the dim otherworld into which he’d been called’) illuminate the inevitable union of dual masculine and feminine energies resulting in the climactic dawning of a new life-path for Lu Beiping. So much is not as it seems, when ‘these two women lay a curse on his head’.
Indigenous consideration for the environment, something very much lacking in today’s capitalistic and dichotomised society, is a theme that comes to the fore in this Valley in an epoch of exploitatively mass-tapping of rubber trees, and bulk-spreading of cow manure in Maoist China. Almost verging on Native deference for the sacred Pachamama which has eternally permeated the Americas, anything goes, apart from killing, in this ‘swamp of bad juju and foul intrigue’.
Austin Woerner’s ‘method acting’ (or ‘method translating’) for this novel – having absorbed himself in real-life trips to the locations of Su Wei’s own ‘down-countrying and agricultural re-education’ - pays off remarkably, and his translation is elevated to where the reader is entirely and viscerally submerged in the sultry tropical heat, and the oppressive, murky mysticism that accompanies all that dare to enter.

The vernacular used is almost that of another century, indeed of another realm, in its Tolkien-esque qualities: ‘baleglen’, ‘flagon’, ‘flitleeches’, are seemingly almost archaic terms that wouldn’t appear out of place in a canon of literary works from the Middle Ages, in a ‘magickal’ land where hobbits roam free, and ‘wyrm-demons’ could be lurking around every corner.

Despite the tricky demonic yet geological lexicon in the novel – everything from Cultural Revolution jargon to folk religion and mythological expressions - Woerner renders a skilful translation that delivers, as he states in his own words, a novel of a ‘slalom of the untranslatable’, and I look forward to discovering more of his translated work.

Reviewed by Vicki Leigh

Reviewed by Cat Hanson, 30/7/18

The Cultural Revolution is a period marked by the extreme. Extreme policies, extreme rivalries, and people themselves pushed to the extreme against each other and their surroundings. The Invisible Valley often places us between scenes of the outlandish and the extraordinary, with our rather regular main character, Lu Beiping, as our eyes and ears on the ground.

Lu is one of millions relocated to the countryside for agricultural ‘re-education’ during the Cultural Revolution in China. With schools closed and little option, Lu finds himself moved to Hainan, a tropical island off the coast of China. After suddenly being pulled into a ‘ghost marriage’, he finds himself also falling for Jade, a woman living in the mountains with three men and their children, and soon Lu is confronted with extremes. Extreme tension, an extreme environment, extreme terrain, and even extreme weather.

Lu is constantly pulled between the extreme world of the Cultural Revolution and the world that it seeks to clamp down upon – the ‘invisible valley’, as I imagined. Superstition, highly discouraged and even punishable, it still rife on the mountain, from the Foreman’s ghost marriage to the mysterious ‘Snakeweird’ that lies in wait in the forest. Lu, inconspicuous at first, is adaptable, falling into line as a member of the Agrecorps, then husband to a ghost wife, then a lover. Set against the unforgiving backdrop of Mudkettle Mountain, Lu’s journey is its own hike of peaks and troughs, pushing his acceptance to the limit. Be it a storm raging down upon him, or even the extreme details of someone’s life (Kambugger’s, in this instance) being passed around as gossip. Lu initially flinches when confronted with the driftfolk’s nakedness and frank conversation, but also finds it hard to adapt to life as a husband to a ‘crossed’ ghost wife. Perhaps author Su Wei sought to reflect the intense strain of the period even through the smallest of interactions – in any case, I almost felt a cold, muddy, wet shiver run through me during the catastrophic storm scene.

In addition, language crops up frequently throughout the novel, both a glue and a divide between the characters. The Cultural Revolution’s nonsensical sins such as ‘Interpersonal Entanglements’ and ‘Lifestyle Issues’ are hurled around like revolutionary confetti. Smudge’s ‘thick accent’ piques Lu’s curiosity as his tries to place the child’s dialect. The novel breaks for beautiful pieces of prose, a language in itself, while in contrast Lu’s ferocious cursing also serves as another extreme outburst, his frustrations bubbling to the surface in a flurry of coarse profanity. It’s almost as if, by the novel’s conclusion, Lu has learned how to navigate through these languages of regiments and rituals, becoming more adept as each chapter passes, filling in the blanks. Even the writer of the story, Tsung, adds in his own linguistic flair, noting how he peppered Lu’s romantic life with fantasy details unspoken by his interviewee.

The translation by Austin Woerner, particularly of the poetry and in capturing the acute differences in tone between the camps and characters, is clearly a masterful work over which Woerner has taken time to not only translate, but also to reflect the sentiments of the original work. To translate the most intense experiences and stay true to the writer’s flair must have been a unique challenge within itself.

Reviewed by Cat Hanson

Reviewed by Cuilin Sang, 28/7/18

Su Wei’s The Invisible Valley 迷谷 , translated by Austin Woerner, is a remarkable work. Set against the background of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, The Invisible Valley unveils a physical and psychological landscape that is beyond any political measure. Lu Beiping, a young man aspiring for an intellectual life from the prosperous city Guangzhou, is sent far away from his hometown for agricultural re-education. By pure chance, he is forced into a marriage with a ghost – his foreman’s mysteriously deceased daughter. Giving biblical names to the cows he is herding, Lu Beiping starts to settle in his own unique fantasy world in the mountains when Jade, a matriarch leading an outcast family that includes several of her lovers and children, enters into his life. Jade, who wears bracelets and earrings, or “monstrosities never seen on women in those days,” does not shy away from professing her passion towards Lu Beiping and often provokes unnamable, primordial feelings other than love in him. Her family members also in their own specific ways are seeping into the temporary peace in Lu Beiping’s isolated life.

Among Jade’s lovers, Kingfisher (八哥 ) is apparently the most domineering figure. With a pious respect for the mountains, Kingfisher follows an unorthodox philosophy of life that requires a constant balance between Yin and Yang, which, as the story shows, can sometimes manifest in unexpected ways. In large measure, Kingfisher embodies an indigenous religion that worships the female, fertility, and the phantasmal. Autumn (阿秋 ), another family member, on the other hand, indistinctly yet persistently undermines the wilderness in the life in the mountains with his adoration of the beauty and intellect in the (male) mind. The Invisible Valley, therefore, is fundamentally an ancient story about the opposition and entanglement between male and female.

As a translator who has translated Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry, which is purposefully polysemous and famously obscure, Austin Woerner did an even more wonderful job this time, for in his own words, The Invisible Valley “is a real slalom course of ‘untranslatable’ features: jargon from the Cultural Revolution, rustic Cantonese dialect, concepts from Chinese folk religion and mythology, classical poetry and prose, and various exotic plants and animals that have no names in English” (“Talking Translation,” Interview by Writing Chinese). Consider, for example, the maddeningly difficult inscription on the tablet in Chapter 8 “The Ancient Tablet.” Even for a native Chinese speaker, to comprehend these fragmented texts written in classical Chinese can be a real challenge:

平黎碑记 平黎碑记 平黎碑记
户部侍郎 陆方 ……州人
……海南一 岛四州 蚤列职方 蚤列职方 蚤列职方 蚤列职方 乃百垌中蟠 黎歧宅焉 犹雕题禽行 侵轶我疆 侵轶我疆 侵轶我疆 侵轶我疆 场 虔刘我编氓 至元辛卯夏丁酉朔 ……

Without losing their original classical linguistic ambience, Woerner beautifully transforms them into unencumbered English sentences:

This Record set in Stone by . . . Minister of Taxes and Rev . . .
. . . for though the Isle’s four Prefectures have long fallen under Celestial Rule, the barbarian Loi, who abide in curious Dwellings deep in these hundredfold Vales, nevertheless wheeled free as Vultures in the Sky, and made war upon His Subjects, inflicting great slaughter thereupon, which state of affairs persisted until the first of Eighth month in the year Cel. VIII Ter. IV . . .

Su Wei’s language in this book bears the unique signature of the time, the place and the culture where the narrative has taken place, which requires a truly talented literary mind and an adept skill in mediating between diverse linguistic species with precision. With an idiosyncratic combination of lucidity and literariness, his modern Chinese language carries the bloodline of its poetic, classical ancestor. The well-preserved, succinct poeticity in this book suggests an unbroken lineage between classical and modern Chinese language, and great literary potential for the latter as a medium. In many ways, the English version of this text matches its original virtuosity. And it can be seen that Woerner did “inhabit the world of the novel” and become the “co-author” of the book (Talking Translation), for only a deep immersion can produce another version of the text in another language so natural, so full of life.

Reviewed by Cuilin Sang