The Read Paper Republic initiative first ran from 18th June 2015 to 16th June 2016, publishing a new story, poem or essay, in translation every week. The full stories are free-to-view, thanks to the incredible generosity of the translators and the whole Paper Republic team. We worked with Paper Republic to enhance the search functionality and provide the keywords for these stories and are delighted to be able to host them on our site.
Reading Chinese School Bookclub Reviews
"Piano Twilight", reviewed by Alys Williamson, Y11, ThinkChinese, Jersey Channel Islands, 17/7/20
“Piano Twilight”, by Chen Cun, translated by Michael Day
“Piano Twilight” is a beautifully poignant tale of the deeply profound connection between humanity and music, and how it conveys meaning in ways that words simply cannot.
The translation is fluent, articulate and natural, making it an effortless read. Likewise, it is easy to immediately connect with the narrator as they present themselves in a very honest, open and vulnerable way, revealing their unfiltered feelings to us in an amiable manner. We therefore trust them and are receptive to what they say, which is essential, as the whole story is narrated from their perspective in a simplistic, somewhat shy style.
The narrator is obviously very familiar with music, particularly the piano, (which is the instrument the old Lady frequently plays), as he is perceptive, and critical, of her playing; ‘the tempo was precise, if a little stiff’. His familiarity is complimented by his intense appreciation for music and this exaggerated by how he actively makes the effort to follow her melodies and watch her silently as she plays, allowing himself to be engulfed by the calm he feels.
What is interesting about this story, is how the characters lack a close relationship with one another, but all connect with the music, and gather around to enjoy it individually. This is highlighted by the solemn, reserved and phantasmal presence of the Old Man, who always lurks in the dark, appearing only after the black cat. Yet, as distant as he is, he always has an aspect of concern for the narrator, often enquiring; ‘Have you had dinner yet?’ or ‘Have you eaten today?’.
What I really enjoyed about this story was how the narrator connected so deeply to the Old lady’s music, and how he would loose himself in the melody, loosing track of time as his ‘heart began to sing along’, but couldn’t seem to connect with her on a personal level, instead, leaving us to imagine her via his detailed descriptions of her appearance, and her mannerisms. We sympathize with the narrator’s inability to build a relationship with the Old Lady, as he obviously wants it desperately, but can only talk to her about the water bill or electric bill, not about anything meaningful or memorable, nothing that will build a strong connection with the woman. I found this somewhat relatable; as we all have someone we want to be closer to.
Although the plot is very simple without many big events or twists, it is very engaging and cordial, and I was hooked onto the narrators every word, his descriptions of the scenery, the Old Man and the Woman, and even the cat, are thorough and elaborate which allows us to envision the story in our minds and simultaneously appreciate their presence in the story.
My favourite part was when the narrator began to play the piano himself, and played with the woman in a kind of unspoken agreement, a final attempt at a connection, and a small success. It implied that music was the bridge between the narrator’s awkwardness and yearning for friendship and I found it very meaningful as he never gave up even when the only words they would exchange were polite enquiries.
The ending was very unexpected and surprising, leaving me with many questions, and leaving me pondering what could have been when I had finished reading, which is usually a sign that I had enjoyed a story.
I would recommend this story to people aged ten and over, particularly to those who enjoy a calm, easy read, and to those who enjoy questioning a story and its potential endings.
"Forty-Nine Degrees," reviewed by Joanna Adler, Y11, Gumley House School, 23/6/20
“Forty-Nine Degrees” by Song Aman, translated by Michelle Deeter.
“Forty-Nine Degrees” by Song Aman, is a contemporary short story following the life of a post-graduate and her struggles to find love as she makes her way through a traffic jam in a wealthy business district in China,, while dealing with the sweltering heat.
The heroine in this novel deals with the conflicting emotions of wanting to make her parents pleased and her own self happiness as she endures the company of Lei Fu in the taxi, the guy whom her parents are eager for her to date. The novel shows the post-graduate’s journey through the city, as she struggles to make it in time for her train, while questioning her future happiness, knowing that Lei Fu isn’t the one for her.
I found that Aman’s presentation of the modern worries of young people and their pressure to meet societies standards in dating was beautifully described through the rising temperature and force of the heat, hence the name ‘Forty-Nine Degrees’.
Not only does the reader get a glimpse of the extreme pressure young people have to face (especially in China) from their parents to get married into an ideal family but they also gain a look into the prestigious lives of the wealthy and their dating lifestyle. In the novel the female protagonist refers to her past boyfriend Jianting, as she remembers falsely believing that she would be in an exclusive relationship with him. She soon discovers he already has a wife and children and his luxury life doesn’t prevent him from having a girlfriend on the side.
I particularly enjoyed reading about the obvious split between the wealthy and commoners which emphasised the heroine’s distaste for the rich environment and continued to highlight her questionable sense of belonging:
“The city belongs to them. Everything that is worth something belongs to them.”
My favourite part of the novel was the introduction to the setting, and build up of the novel using imagery, before introducing the heroine to the readers. It was descriptive and enticing and allowed me to feel as if I was experiencing the dense weight and pressure from the sun and sweat. It nicely emphasised the almost claustrophobic situation the heroine was in , sitting in a taxi with a man she should love but doesn’t.
It was frustrating to see the novel left on a cliffhanger. However I think it brought more mystery and sadness to the reader as they can only hope the protagonist was able to find love and go against her parents expectations. Personally I wished there was more of an obvious bond between the heroine and Gu Tang (a close friend) as the author leaves the relationship between them rather anonymous. Leaving the reader to wonder if it is just friendship or could it be developed into something more.
“Forty-Nine Degrees” provides an insight into the struggles of a woman nearly turning thirty who has to face the pressure of Chinese society, while worrying that her life is at a stand still. Overall I would definitely recommend this book. The novel was able to tackle the social issues prevalent in Chinese society today and reminds the reader that life is a constant wave, unpredictable and on the move.
"Piano Twilight", reviewed by Oluwaseyi Towolawi, Y11, Gumley House School, 15/6/20
“Piano Twilight”, by Chen Cun, translated by Michael Day
Name: “Piano Twilight”
Genre: Short story
Setting: An ‘ancient alley’ (apartment building) in China
A man who is in love with the twilight – the setting sun brings him a peace that he becomes addicted to – finds himself enamoured with the sound of his neighbour, an old woman from downstairs, playing the piano. To him it compliments the twilight, and this love for her playing sends the man through a number of strange yet everyday events. These involve other characters who provide very little insight on the underlying mystery of the old woman’s past at hand. The lack of explanation causes the man to spend the story searching for answers that everyone else seems to have. Regardless, the unspoken connection he forms with the old woman through her playing leads the narrative through beautiful descriptions of feeling, piano playing and wonder.
Why I liked it:
There is a constant feeling of being on the surface of something big, just outside the knowledge of the man, who is the narrator, and therefore just outside of the reader’s knowledge. The way in which Chen Cun manages to build the story so beautifully, to both point to and avoid the questions the old man has is captivating. You spend the whole story with half of your mind attempting to use any clues received from the characters to solve it. My favourite character would be the old woman, as her life appears so simple, and yet, so long as the narrator is trapped in this mystery, every word feels valuable. The narrator seems thoroughly outside of the close-knit community that exists in the building, and so his connection with the old woman feels like a life-line that gives him a small window into everything that is happening.
The descriptions of her playing compared to his make her character feel so emotive, controlled and experienced that it is astonishing how formal she is with the speaker when away from her piano. The emotions described through her playing fill you with pathos and a curiosity that feels disrespectful to satisfy, which you can only hope the story of the people living in the ‘alley’ will reveal to the narrator for you to see the reason behind such deep feelings. My favourite moments of the story are when the speaker finally manages to break the stiffness between himself and the old woman, even if only for a moment, and when he finds his connection to her music responded to near the end.
Things I didn’t like:
While the concept of the mystery is enchanting, I felt that if the reader was given more clues, though not enough to figure out what is happening, trying to interpret the ambiguous hints that are given would be more entertaining. Separately, I found that the character of the old man was hard to enjoy. He was possibly one of the strongest barriers between the narrator and the answers he wanted, but gave off no implicit reason for avoiding it. He also felt quite detached from the old woman, and so their relationship was harder to grasp.
I greatly enjoyed reading this short story. The unique concept of the plot was simple and yet made so interesting that it held my attention throughout. I particularly liked the separate worlds existing between the narrator and each character, and how each character’s importance feels related to their knowledge of the old woman’s past. The narrator’s knowledge of music also compliments the story as it shows he understands the woman’s playing from an emotional and technical point of view. I love the idea that the speaker’s life is slowly pulled together by his motivation to decipher the old woman’s past. In the end, he is notably more composed, showing how the experience has left him the same person, but in many ways different to how he was when he first arrived at the ‘alley’.
I would recommend this short story to young adults and above, especially as I imagine by the age of 15, most individuals are capable of analysing the story for its alternate messages, the meaning and importance of the details so carefully crafted by Chen Cun.
If I were to give the story a rating, I would give it 4.8 out of 5, as I feel that it was memorable and becomes even more favourable with time after reading it, but still find myself sometimes unsatisfied with the ambiguity of the ending.