New Voices from China
Ou Ning and Austin Woerner,

(University of Oklahoma Press)
If you plan to go to China any time soon, or want to open up a business like McDonalds or KFC there --- don't. Or at least, if Chutzpah! is any guide to the thinking of the people there, you are better off someplace safe --- like Afghanistan, Syria, or the depths of the Congo.

In the fifteen stories here, an even dozen were replete with mayhem, death by frying, being hung by your arms yanked behind you, being caught in the lower floors of a collapsed building in an earthquake, having your eyes gouged out of their sockets, being forced to eat egret shit (no shit!) --- and getting involved in a snuff movie.

In one tale, a simple peasant from the country had been caught stealing a yard of cloth, so children were let out of school and told to beat him with bamboo.

    Lashed like a top by countless bamboo rods, that middle-aged thief began to hop and prance along the pipe in a dance that never let up. There was no escape. To whichever side he was driven, a dense screaming throng was waiting to whip him. I distinctly remember the coarse skin of his calves, still a little muddy, slowly turning from red to purple, then gradually swelling and turning white and translucent like a turnip. He kept uttering little cries and desperately flailing his hands and feet. The drops of his sweat fell like rain, and there shone from his eyes the cold light of death . . . Finally, I noticed that he had grown so hoarse that he could only open and shut his mouth soundlessly like a fish, and his body was shaking like a kite off-kilter, and when one more blow came, the blow that was one too many, he fell with a crash.

One of the few stories that allows us a hint of harmony and love is entitled "A Village of Cold Hearths," about life in a village during the cultural revolution. Liufu is hungry, as are most of his neighbors, but then he thinks about "catching a few field mice, roasting them over a wood fire until they were tender, and gobbling them down, bones, marrow, and all."

But better than mice-meat pie, he goes off to the river to see if he can catch a fish. And he does, a huge one.

He asks her her name, she says "Fish." She had webbed toes, "like a duck." She says she is seventeen years old. "Her skin and body were snowy white in the moonlight, as if someone had drawn a human form on the night's curtain. The girl smelled faintly of fish grass."

They talk about the village, Weixing, but she claims she lives only in the water . . . and before we know it, Liufu is in love.

But it is dangerous times. The old herdsman Li is caught with a half cup of peas, is accused of hoarding. The "squad" takes him and starts to kick him. He falls to his knees.

    Like wild beasts swarming upon fallen prey, they punched him in the nose, slapped his face, pulled his hair, kicked him in the stomach, and tore at his clothes. In the blink of an eye, old Li lay on his back, blood steaming from every orifice.

Even our fish-lover Liufu gets in on the action, gives the old man a few kicks. "The old herdsman died late that night . . . People said it had been a stroke."

I often start a collection of stories in the middle, just to be free of the propaganda that is included in copies to buffalo the reviewer. In this case, it chanced to be one of few benign stories in the batch, titled "The Failure."

A young man is sent from Beijing to teach Chinese to Kazakh middle-school students. All he brought with him is a love of Kafka, but he finds much to love in this town in the Xinjiang Province. The students soon are taken with him. They want him to tell them about Beijing. Are there tall buildings there? Many cars?

The students even begin to come to his room at night to bring him hot tea and a bread they call "nang." They cheer when he dips the nang with butter in his tea, as the locals do, and they sing Kazakh songs to him:

    Galloping toward the mountain pass
    The pass is right before your eyes
    Sitting at table with family and friends
    Happiness is right before your eyes.

One fourteen year old girl, Aygelin falls in love with him. He calls her "Miss Nonsense." She gives him a plant, but "It's odor wasn't sweet like a flower's perfume; it was the pure scent of grass. Later in life, whenever I smelled that odor, I thought of Kazakh girls."

Our teacher is good and true and loyal, manages to fend off Aygelin and her puppy love. He is well-beloved by all the students in his class. When it is time to return to Beijing, they all come to see him off at the bus. "'Goodbye teacher! Think of us' . . . Everyone was crying. I couldn't help but look back at them. Even Kaysa and Kaylat, the two boys I had never really liked, were crying. They all waved to me in farewell."

The best story in the book --- once you weave your way past all the violence, thievery, bestiality, porn, and stunning boredom --- turns out to be at the very beginning. It is called "A Brief History of Time." The writer tells of his friend Qingzhou who was in Sichuan on a business trip in 2008 when the earthquake hit. He was buried at the bottom of a four-story building, but, being drunk, he thought the whole thing was a result of his whiskey. "His last thoughts before he blacked out were: This is some booze. When it puts you down, the whole world comes rattling down with you. I've never had anything like it."

    It was good stuff, mellow in the mouth with plenty of kick, and what a sense of accomplishment it produced: when you went down, the world went down with you.

After several hours of lying there, Qingzhou's mind begins to wander, and after a day "my only sense of time was of its length, unending and unchanging, nothing else. Day and night no longer existed for me . . . In my dreams I felt like I would catch fire, like my whole body was smoking: the corners of my eyes, my lips, throat, guts, and hair, even my soul. Do you believe in the soul?

--- No.

--- I do.

    I saw it with my own eyes, shriveling from thirst, smoking from thirst. The soul itself is like smoke, and half-awake I saw it streaming out from my smouldering hair, coalescing into a second self within the narrow space under the flooring. I watched that self slowly seep out from under the concrete, and re-form again outside the wreckage. I saw him leave the ruins and the earthquake behind, and head for the train station.

The soul moves backwards in time . . . two years in Beijing, back through jobs he didn't like, remembering when he was playing the confidence man, keeping a journal, playing hooky from middle school in 1989; finally, reciting for his teacher in the fourth grade, and, then:

    The soul of my friend Huang Qingzhou now walks with a lurching, unsteady gait, his steps smaller and smaller, his body increasingly awkward, He appears ever smaller, and weaker, and finally can't walk at all --- he has become an infant. He begins crawling on the ground, bawling and naked, and the farther he crawls, the softer his skin becomes, the more tender his body grows. He sees a warm, damp cave ahead of him, beckoning to him like the Bermuda Triangle, and before he can even consider avoiding it, he's going in with a plunk. Though incapable of thought, he knows it is his mother's womb, a warm and welcoming world! Then he hears torturous panting, witnesses a battle of the flesh, full of revolutionary spirit and critical will, empty of physical desire. The man who will become his father had just left the stage with his face bruised and swollen from stones, bricks and slaps. The woman who will become his mother has just removed a broken pair of shoes, their laces tied together, from around her neck and placed them carefully in a basket behind the door, so she can find them when she needs them. No one has new shoes, and even old ones are hard to come by. Tomorrow, between five o'clock and dinnertime, she must hang them around her neck and parade through the village from east to west, three circuits in all, to give the revolutionary masses an appetite for their dinner.

    As the two bodies thrash haphazardly, Huang Qingzhou hears the clamor of the world, sees a great illumination. The illumination of darkness. And then he, my friend Qingzhou, hears a distant voice saying:

    --- Quick, cover his eyes! He's still alive!

--- Margaret Salvaje
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