Posts Tagged ‘China’
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone who is looking for an erotic thrill at bedtime. It’s more of a literary curiosity. Here is a typical sex scene:
“The next morning, after a savage night of love, we put to sea again en route to China.”
It’s not that Mirbeau can’t write erotic descriptions. He can. Look at this:
“Divinely calm and pretty, naked in a transparent tunic of yellow silk, she was languidly stretched out on a tiger skin. Her head lay among the cushions, and with her hands, loaded with rings, she played with a long wisp of her flowing hair. A Laos dog with red hair slept beside her, its muzzle resting on her thigh and a paw upon her breast.”
But just when he’s getting you worked up into a lather of erotic anticipation, he sickens you with an image of horrific ugliness. He draws from a vast and various store of deformity, pain, violence, mutilation and disease. It’s grist to the mill for people who want to write like Tarantino or design a Vivenne Westwood fashion shoot; but for those of us who just want to nod off to a sexy story, it’s far too unpleasant.
Of course, the significance of setting the Torture Garden in China wasn’t lost on me. It’s a political book and the commentary on China is as politically charged as the commentary on France. Mirbeau is an iconoclast. His ideas deserve serious consideration, which they are not going to get from me here in this review. But he is also a sensationalist. China served his purpose chiefly because it was largely unknown to the West except as a source of opium, exotic flowers, intense perfumes, exquisite tortures and pretty girls with skin like porcelain.
The images are lush and striking but the plot is ultimately a frustrating one. In spite of the overt philosophising, literal meanings prove elusive. So it’s neither a good erotic novel nor an effective treatise on morbid beauty. But it is, nevertheless, extraordinary, bold and memorable. And if you enjoyed Mario Praz’s The Romantic Agony, you simply have to read The Torture Garden.
I’m a bit concerned that, because I give so many 5-star reviews, people might think I am indiscriminate.
On the other hand, my reading time is so precious that I don’t like to squander it reading a book I’m not enjoying. There are so many thrilling ones.
So I’ll compromise.
I’ll review this book without reading it.
To be fair, I tried to read it. There are six stories in this collection and I gave each of them a go. I read the first one for over twenty minutes but I couldn’t find a single thing to like.
The others I devoted much less time to. I found the accumulation of mundane sentences and banal dialogue overwhelmingly tedious. I think my flatmate’s incoherent ramblings are more literary than this.
I read (or, strictly speaking, didn’t read) these stories in English but it’s not the translator’s fault. She has also translated “Lust, Caution” by Eileen Chang, which is absolutely brilliant whether you read it in English or Chinese.
So, sorry, this gets a thumbs down from me.
I think Xiaolu Guo has a problem with narrative. That’s why she likes writing in fragments. I wonder what her films are like. It’s possible to make films without having to explain anything. In a novel, if this is a novel, you can’t really get away with that for long. Which is probably why this nearly-novel is very short.
One of the things I didn’t like is that it jumps around in time without being clear about the chronology. Just when did this little 17 year old from a sweet potato farm get her laptop and mobile phone? The references to such things as email, VCDs and DVDs are extremely confusing, especially if you have spent any time in China during the last 20 years and know what was available when.
Because of the chronological confusion, I think it does very little to illuminate life in China in recent years, although some passages, taken in isolation, are an accurate depiction of how life was at certain points in time. These isolated vignettes just don’t hang together as either a consistent narrative or as an accurate historical record.
This English version is the work of two translators, an editor, and Xiaolu Guo herself, who rewrote it after it had been translated. The result is 20 vignettes in very short sentences that are highly polished, brittle and self-conscious. Some of it is quite poetic but much of it irritated me.
I’m not sure if the title, Captain Sun, is a deliberate reference to the James Bond novel, Colonel Sun, written by Kinglsey Amis and published under the pseudonym of Robert Markham. There is something distinctly literary in the author’s style, so it might be. She seems to have read widely and to have a quirky sense of humour.
Her quirkiness is evident in the structure of this strange tale, which is arse about face, as they say here in London. It opens with a slightly shocking sex scene. There is very little build up. It appears to me to be quite cold and almost brutal.
Then there are some descriptive passages in which we learn more about the situation of the young woman and her relationship to the lecherous Captain Sun. We are given, right at the end of the story, a very specific date, which places it at a time in China when essential foodstuffs were still very strictly rationed.
The suggestion is that the woman allows Captain Sun to do as he pleases with her in return for food coupons so that she can feed her family. But it’s a little more complex than this. Sex too is “rationed” and the young woman seems to enjoy allowing herself to be abused by the captain.
I found the final paragraphs incredibly erotic and they made me want to read the whole story again from the beginning. That’s why I’m giving it 5 stars.
The author is apparently making an effort with this story to explore her cultural heritage. I like that about it. The main character is a thirty-something Chinese woman who has so far failed to find romance, let alone love. Is there a hint of autobiography here? The story is set in Malaysia, which is intriguing, since the author claims to have been born in China. Perhaps she is trying to give the impression that she is widely-travelled.
The style is quite literary and not very modern. I suspect the author is either old or old-fashioned, possibly both. At times I could almost have been reading a story by Joseph Conrad or Somerset Maugham. Not bad influences to have, I suppose, if you can carry it off, though hardly contemporary.
You have to wait a long time for the sex scenes. This will probably condemn it to being largely unread. That would be a shame, since the sex scenes are really well done and, personally, I enjoyed the slow and atmospheric build up.
In fact I could have gone on reading for far longer. The ending was a little abrupt. I think there are the seeds of a novel here. I would like to read more from this promising writer. But is she young or old? Hard to tell. If she’s old she might not have much left in her.
I do hope she’s young and full of vigour. I’d like to read something really wild by her, with all caution thrown to the wind.
I am very interested in the life of the woman who wrote these stories. There is no doubt that they are a first rate contribution to world literature. They are serious, controlled, thoughtful and deeply felt. But I hate reading them. They are like a bitter pill to me and I don’t want to take it. There is a China that is not shown here. You might think that this other China doesn’t exist, could never exist. Yiyun Li doesn’t want these stories to be published in China. Perhaps it’s because the China she writes of isn’t there anymore. I haven’t read her other collection of stories or her novel but I think they are still trying to purge her past. Let’s move on.