|Lao Sheng [China Daily]|
The deathbed of a rural funeral singer serves as the stage of Jia Pingwa's newest novel.
The protagonist of Lao Sheng—the title has multiple meanings in Chinese, including the elderly male role in Peking Opera, immortality and cliche—recalls the lives of about 100 characters, whose stories come to life as he remembers his travels among villages to sing in honor of the dead.
Their stories create a mosaic of how the past century of revolution, reform and social transformation has shaped a rural stretch of Shaanxi Province's Qingling mountain range.
Most of the 52-year-old author's 15 books paint portraits of the rural realities that are largely disappearing amid modernization.
"Literature can record history but should do more than just that," Jia said at the book's launch hosted by People's Literature Publishing House last month at Peking University.
"A century is the blink of an eye when you consider the scale of history. You can view things objectively from this perspective."
The book is thick with cruelty and kindness.
But on his deathbed, "the singer", as he's known, views the people he has seen with a detached outlook that enables him to understand life's absurdity, inconsistence and meaninglessness, Jia explains.
The singer examines the world with little feeling. But glimmers of sympathy emerge in a few cases, such as that of Sifeng.
The young woman discovers a man peeping at her. He turns out to be the powerful official Wang Shizhen, who forces her to become his concubine.
But he kicks her out after one night, which at that time would destroy a woman's reputation and future.
But Wang's bodyguard Laohei loves Sifeng. Driven by resentment of his treatment of Sifeng and general cruelty, Laohei succumbs to the influence of his Communist cousin and kills Wang.
He goes on to form a guerrilla group to fight the Kuomintang.
Sifeng's parents are beaten to death after her brother joins the guerillas. The singer takes her to a funeral to protect her.
Sifeng agrees to marry Laohei. But Kuomintang troops find the guerillas on their wedding day and kill most of them, including Sifeng's brother.
Laohei escapes and finds Sifeng days later—insane, pregnant and about to be raped by Kuomintang soldiers.
Laohei kills Sifeng out of mercy. Then the soldiers kill him.
This is just one tragic tale from the turbulent periods of the revolution, "cultural revolution" (1966-76) and economic reforms.
The book reveals both the selfish and selfless sides of humanity. It also shows good people can be driven to evil, and vice-versa.
Every chapter is prefaced with an excerpt from Shanhaijing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas)—a collection of legends about geography written more than 4,000 years ago. The way Shanhaijing chronicles one mountain after another inspired Jia to write about one village after another, he says.
Italian embassy translator and cultural officer Patrizia Liberati praises the way in which readers know what time period events take place even though no years are given.
"You just know when the time is as you read the novel, no matter if you are familiar with Chinese history or not," Liberati says.
"It's like a circle, without starts and ends, which echoes as history itself. Personally, I think history cycles."
Chinese Writers' Association critic Li Jingze says the unique structure demonstrates Jia's understanding of the relationships among history, literature and memory. He believes it's an "exquisite salute" to the Chinese classic A Dream of Red Mansions, since both delve into life's meaninglessness and fate.
(Source: China Daily)
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