Shanghai Pearls

Jin Li and Dai Congrong (eds) – The Book of Shanghai (Comma Press, 2020) 

China has been in the news a lot recently. The mass incarceration of the Uighurs. Establishing a police state in Hong Kong. Its nightmarish social credit system. And, of course, releasing and then trying to cover up a nasty little influenza that, in order to avoid a hate speech charge, we won’t be calling China Virus.

At times like this, when a country’s tyrannical government is running out of control, it is good for us to remember the people of that country. We only have to read about their government’s shenanigans after all; they have to live with them.

Comma Press’ “Cities” series is a perfect medium through which to do just that. They source the best in short story writers from cities around the world and have their tales, both realist and fantastical, translated into English for our reading pleasure.

The books of Tehran, Khartoum, and Cairo have all been excellent. They were light-touch collections that bring you straight into the heart of these cities. The Book of Shanghai, in this reader’s opinion, surpasses all of them.

Edited by Jin Li and Dai Congrong, the Book brings together ten stories of life in China’s second city. These range from closely observed works of realism, like Teng Xiaolan’s “Woman Dancing Under Stars”, to surrealist shaggy dog stories like Cai Jun’s “Suzhou River”.

I was halfway through Wang Zhanhei’s “The Story of Ah-Ming” when I realised I was reading one of the best short story collections I have ever read. This tale of a penurious grandma who starts out rummaging bins for recyclables only to end up going feral is so strange and yet believable that it could be a lost work of Dostoyevsky’s.

The stories are rich in character and elegantly varied in tone. We meet a lot of lonely people; individuals left behind by China’s modernisation and the break-up of multigenerational households. But we meet dreamers too, and chancers.

“The Novelist in the Attic” by Shen Dacheng is a surprising story of a writer permitted to live in a publisher’s attic, only to experience a severe identity crisis. As publishing modernises all around him, becoming ruthless and commercial, he moves backwards to the age of the suffering, penniless and low-productivity writer-artist.

Such things, as we know, can’t last long.

Here and there we get touches specific to China. Xia Shang’s comic tale of a family feud between zookeepers – “Bengal Tiger” – makes reference to the often outrageous sums Chinese courts can grant in compensation cases. “Woman Dancing Under Stars” revolves around collective dance classes and tearooms.

The beauty and the ugliness of a culture unlike our own confronts us, as it does in that first day in any foreign city when we haven’t quite got our bearings. The world is strange yet similar.

But these stories are also universal. Chen Danyan’s “Snow” is a sad little slice of life about a lonely woman who wanders the city looking for places to sit and read her book. She reads a French novel about the suffering of the Jews during the holocaust. She feels such sympathy for them, and yet we feel sympathy for her. Her suffering is our modern, undramatic, utterly mundane suffering. It is beautifully done.

For those looking for politics, it does creep in… just about. There is a nice balance to the book. Where the introduction repeats disingenuous Party narratives about the cultural revolution and mandatory socialist realism (painting them as trends rather than incitements to mass death), the final story – Chen Quifan’s “State of Trance” – has a biting dissident edge.

Chinese communists, it seems, are much like Soviet communists in their surprisingly lax attitude to dissidence in sci-fi. That sci-fi is only a fantasy perhaps allows for plausible deniability. Chen’s eerie story of young renegades dodging an all-consuming, mind-destroying collective is hard to interpret in any other way, however. The brain police are coming!

Overall, I cannot praise this collection highly enough. If you have any interest in the short story, get it. Even if you don’t, this might change your mind. A near-perfect collection.

– Joe Darlington

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