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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Illuminating flashes of China's fictive light

A collection of short stories showcases some of China's remarkable talent


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
THE PEARL JACKET AND OTHER STORIES: Flash Fiction From Contemporary China, edited and translated by Shouhua Qi. Stone Bridge Press, 2008, 345 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Divided into thematic segments such as Portraits, Relationships, Family and Existential Moments, more than a hundred writers are represented in this stubby new collection from China.

Many of these stories, like Ling Rongzhi's "Odd Day, Even Day," depend on carefully contrived coincidences, misunderstandings and synchronicities for their effect. The largely apolitical topics may reflect the limits of dissent in China, but not of the desire to complain, to grouse about prevailing conditions, which in many cases remain appalling.

In "Time Travel" by Cain Nan, it is the feeble resolve of the individual rather than the state that fails. The social contract, written, rubber-stamped and delivered by a higher authority, is never questioned. A strong strain of anti-materialism runs through many of the stories, which are quests for enduring values. "Reckoning" by Zheng Hongjie, provides an object lesson in honesty over venality. "Only when the accounts are clear and accurate," the county schoolteacher in the story declares to his students, "can a person be clean." There is an oblique message, an appeal against corruption in rural areas here.

Although writer Jia Pingwa, who has had run-ins with the censors in the past, makes an appearance in this collection, more controversial writers like Ma Jian and Wei Hui are absent. Perhaps it is the prolixity of their work or disinterest in the form, rather than their firebrand names, that excludes them.

In "Black and White," Li Qixiang comes closest, perhaps, to an outright criticism of corruption among county officials, a practice that remains rampant in China. The central government is not implicated, the inference being that the provinces have somehow failed the high ideals of the party in Beijing.

Other stories are about hardship or, when wealth is obtained, the abuse of it. The narrator of Lin Ruqiu's "The Fat Cat's Woman," wryly observes, "Men become bad when they have money; women have money when they become bad."

It would be tempting to compare this micro-fiction from China to the Japanese haiku. But unlike the minimalist naturalism of the haiku, these stories contain within them tightly wound coils of narrative. If there is an affinity with anything in postwar Japanese literature, it would be Yasunari Kawabata's bijou collection "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories."

Even in a time of more expansive fiction, writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka knew the merits of compression in the very short story. The reading time in some cases, however, is under five minutes. A different standard of relativity develops as you read these models of flash fiction. In an anthology where some stories are less than a page in length, a three-page narrative can seem like an epic. Despite their brevity, the stories are surprisingly fulfilling. You may find yourself unable to read more than four or five at a sitting, rationing the material over days, even weeks.

Shao Baojian shows how it is possible to create setting, character and an unexpected revelation in just three pages. Wu Shouchun demonstrates in an even shorter sample how wit and irony can achieve compassion when he writes about the premarital uses of mosquito nets.

Some of the accounts, like Wang Renshu's "Blowfish," a failed attempt to relieve his family's suffering and hunger by feeding them the deadly fish, are heart-rending. While the surprise ending is not a prerequisite of the short story, when it is pulled off with consummate skill, it is a little like the magician's hat trick. Xing Qingjie's story about flowers promises a lugubrious ending, but delivers a joyful one.

For the aspiring writer interested in constructing a pithy story with the fewest words, this is a wonderful primer. For the reader, these examples of micro-fiction are perfect for our abbreviated age.



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