Music & Literature: Frontier by Can Xue: Reviewed by Canaan Morse



Frontier by Can Xue

by Can Xue
tr. Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
(Open Letter, March 2017)

Reviewed by Canaan Morse

Reading is an act that requires memory. As a reader’s eyes move through text, the connections between sequences of events, characters and parts of the psyche, or even such micro elements as first and last sentences, and even subject and predicate, only become comprehensible when they can be recalled and reconstituted in the human mind. Likewise, the act of narration traditionally involves a mnemonic operation: the narrative includes “first” and “last” sentences, and introduces characters, themes and plots in ways that reward the use of memory. At the heart of this dialogue between narrator and reader is a pact of comprehensibility, enforced by tradition; two thousand years ago, Aristotle demanded that time, place, and action be unified in drama, but that compact had been around long before he, and continues to hold sway in the mainstream today. Even as innumerable creative writers have bent or broken that pact in innumerable ways, most of us begin a book with the fundamental assumption that it will be upheld on a sentence-to-sentence level.

Can Xue has no interest in keeping such a promise, and never has. Her narratives have no memory – perhaps because in her worlds, memory is a form of nightmare. Better readers than I have pointed out that terms like “linear plot” and “comprehensibility” become fraught in Can Xue’s work; she invests little or nothing at all in the unity of time and place, and an anxious irrationality charges the space between her sentences. Below is a passage from Chapter 4 of Frontier that represents this ubiquitous irrationality thoroughly:

Sherman climbed out of the wooden box and walked toward the campfire. It was close, but he walked a long way before reaching it. He tripped over something underfoot: it was a person lying on the ground. Three others were with him, all lying on their stomachs. The person told Sherman to lie down as they were doing. He said, “Otherwise, the fire will incinerate you.” After Sherman lay down, he asked the man if he had seen Little Leaf. After laughing for a moment, the person said that Sherman was “behind the times.”

Even simple premises of causality become muddled:

All of a sudden, a large wolf-dog pounced on Marco, knocking him to the ground. Actually, he fell of his own accord – and quite readily, too. Marco was holding the dog’s neck; the dog stepped on his stomach and made eye contact with him.

In both instances, as throughout the whole of Frontier, the reader who expects narrative to “make sense” in any conventional way will find himself utterly frustrated. Though characters like Sherman are, supposedly, human, we cannot identify with them because their perceptions are unstable and their reactions appear nonsensical, as both dialogue and action build confusion instead of consensus through a sequence of non-sequiturs. Sherman (whose name is not Sherman, nor anything close – we’ll get to this later) walks toward a campfire that is close yet far away; he trips over people whom no one saw in front of him; he has a “conversation” in which there is no information and no reply. In the second passage, the first sentence informs us that Marco (again, nowhere near his name) is knocked over by a massive dog (langgou), a statement that inspires a mental image and connotes opposition, violence, surprise, and other such emotions. The second sentence completely contradicts the first. He wasn’t knocked, he fell, and he was complicit in (prepared for?) the action. How do we resolve this contradiction? Can Xue does not care; “readability” is not her first priority.

So how should we read this book, how best to understand what’s going on? I have refrained from summarizing up till now, afraid that a summary would impart a false sense of temporality, but setting and reference are important. Frontier takes place in Pebble Town, a city located near the northwest border of an imaginary China. Sinophiles will recognize frequent references to the provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet as they are imagined by Han Chinese. There are snow mountains, Uighurs, wild mastiffs and snow leopards, pristine mountain air, and a relocated populace – every character in the story except for one migrated from somewhere else in the interior, exactly like the Han populations that were encouraged to repopulate China’s most troublesome province. Many of the important migrants to Pebble Town came to work at the “Design Institute,” an institution supposedly related to urban planning that has outlived its pioneering purpose – only the Director, an older woman with a vaguely autocratic air, her janitor, and her adopted relative, Ying, continue to haunt the halls. Each chapter follows one character or several, structuring the narrative as a series of ambiguous internal and external relationships – character-to-character and character-to-world. The fabric of reality in Pebble Town is porous, as frontiers often are, and the land is rampant with wild dogs, wolves, and leopards. It is also affective; migrants find themselves mentally altered by is power, and by its difference from their homelands, which appear as frequent, recognizable references to areas of the Chinese interior. Smoke City, the hometown of one migrant couple, is reminiscent of Beijing: a massive industrial city in which the smoke is so thick you can never see anything. Of course, the idea of the city itself is wreathed in an impenetrable fog of unreliable recollection; it haunts the story without actually appearing in it. The only physical form that connects the people of Pebble Town to the interior is a bird – the “long life bird,” with long, green feathers, which led several characters away from home. It appears and disappears in an instant, just like the tropical “Hanging Gardens” that are said to grow invisibly somewhere in Pebble Town, tended by a strong but mercurial man from the South.

Can Xue’s stories have always been highly allegorical, with a penchant for representing social ills as psychological and physical trauma. Yellow Mud Street, her famous novella of the 1990s, figures an image of industrial development as a poison that infects everything and everyone, turning disease and degeneration into a part of everyday life. The Hut on The Mountain and Old Floating Cloud, two other oft-cited pieces, also represent social violence through grotesque processes of deformation and psychological fragmentation. The poet and critic Yang Xiaobin saw in these works a clear connection between the thing represented and its mode of representation: trauma has caused Can Xue’s characters and narrators to lose their memory, or be unwilling to venture into it. Speech without memory is reaction: instantaneous, and immediately divorced from the thing it responds to. And while Frontier is nowhere near as gruesome as the earlier stories cited above, we find in its Jackson-Pollock description of the world a wealth of references to contemporary China, all of which are possible sources of psychological pressure: the idyllic, dangerous frontier, where predators and (Muslim) Uighurs live; constant overpopulation (“There was no way to find a desolate place to be alone, as someone was always there”); the constant yet unnecessary presence of the governmental Design Institute, and the long reach of pollution (Grace, the only character to return to Smoke City, walks into a dark room in which dead birds are dropping from the ceiling). Latent aggressors linger in the air, in shadows and in language.

Several translators have recreated the phenomenon of Can Xue’s strangeness in English, each using her or his own strategies. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, who won the Best Translated Book Award for her work in translating The Last Lover, represented it through longer, elided sentences and literal translations of idiomatic Chinese expressions. The translators of Frontier, Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, have taken a different route, opting for short, clear sentences that stand independently of one another through starkness of expression, so that irrationality is primarily found between sentences, not within them. My own personal examination of the Chinese text (which is available for free online) indicates that Gernant and Chen’s choice was a conscious, sensitive one, as Can Xue confuses sense, not syntax. Moreover, Chen and Gernant’s crisp style, which brightens real and emotional colors, makes the story’s rare moments of lucidity seem all the more stunning:

[Liujin] gradually mastered her father’s maxim: “You may be in school and not in school at the same time.” Her various teachers seemed to be urging her in this direction, for their lectures grew increasingly boring. Sometimes they ended their lectures by repeating two or three sentences again and again. As she listened, Liujin finally understood, and so her thoughts few to a certain faraway southern city. She learned how to think in the midst of crowds of people. Thus, her teachers’ mechanical teaching midwifed her imagination.

The last sentence is a particularly fine piece of translation, rooting every sentence in the passage together with elegancy and dexterity. Gernant and Chen have crafted an affect that operates as the source text does, thereby speaking in concert with it.

As a stylistic artifact, Gernant and Chen’s translation is successful because it makes art in between the traditional poles of foreignization and localization, the old question of “Do I cover up the Chinese context to sound familiar in English, or bend the English to sound Chinese?” Their other response to that question, unfortunately, does not necessarily show such sensitive judgment. I mentioned earlier that many of the characters’ names are not actually their names; in fact, there is not a single non-Chinese name in the entire story, yet Gernant and Chen have decided to create them. The prefatory pages of the book feature a “Note on Names,” in which the translators state, “With Can Xue’s permission, we have changed some of the Chinese names to English names that are similar to the Chinese. For those who have read or will read the novel in Chinese, we provide this list.” Eleven Chinese names – some of which are very and significantly Chinese – and their English “equivalents” follow.

I do not know why the translators made this decision; I do know that it significantly affects the work, and represents an aesthetic I thought this community had moved beyond, one that bears some comparison to the act of colonization. It inspires a legion of legitimate questions: by what standard to the translators judge the Chinese names “Hu Shan” and “Shi Miao” to be similar to “José” and “Sherman”? Weak phonological similarities pale in comparison to the different cultural connotations these names possess in both languages. The characters Lee and Grace are, in fact, Zhou Xiaoli and Zhou Xiaogui, names that strongly reflect a single-family relationship like that of siblings. The live-in maid of the Meng family, “Amy” has a name in Chinese that resonates with her position: “A-yi (阿依),” which connects the diminutive prefix “Ah” often used with subordinates or children with the character meaning “to depend upon.” I’m not suggesting that the translators could have found a name that reflected this layer of meaning in English, but to suggest that the choice of “Amy” is justified by similarity amounts to covering up the politics of localization. Can Xue herself is no stranger to non-Chinese names (The Last Lover is full of them), yet she writes them in Chinese transliteration. Why ask her permission to change these names, then, but to fulfill the imagined expectations of an ignorant American readership? Moreover, the note itself seems to support this surmise – why else would the translators reveal the original Chinese names solely for the benefit of those “who have read or will read the Chinese original”? Is the implication not that other readers will simply be too uninformed to care? And if so, why didn’t the translators simply change all the names, instead of leaving Liujin, Qiming, Axiang and others in Chinese romanization? Or would that have made the story not Chinese enough?

As we can see, although translation is itself an action upon the source text, its best forms are collaborative and reinforcing. By contrast, political actions (here I mean the politics of language) that don’t take note of their own consequences can be destructive. Can Xue has developed a reputation in the English literary world as China’s sole experimental author, which both amplifies her voice and shrouds those of others (Chen Wei and the Black and Blue writer’s group arguably deserve recognition for their creative work in this area). It is true that she persisted when other writers like Ge Fei and Yu Hua returned to representational prose, her corpus has evolved throughout the years, and she speaks powerfully to many of the cognitive dissonances that define life in China today. Frontier is in many ways a sparkling book in translation, definitely worth losing oneself in; only the projection of English-language politics inhibits what is otherwise a beautiful work of art.

Canaan Morse is a translator, poet and editor currently based in Boston. An original member of Paper Republic and co-founder of Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, his translations and book reviews have appeared in several international journals, and he won the 2014 Susan Sontag International Prize for his translation of Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak (NYRB, 2016). He holds an M.A. in Classical Chinese Literature from the Chinese Language and Literature Department at Peking University and is a Ph.D candidate at Harvard University.


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