Short stories deal in brutal truths about life in modern China

Yu Hua's short stories deal in brutal home truths, writes Amy Russell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2014, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 6:07pm

Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China
by Yu Hua 
4.5 stars

British Victorian novelist George Eliot once wrote that "the finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words". This statement rings true in the writings of the Hangzhou-born Yu Hua.

In Boy in the Twilight, his carefully crafted vignettes, minimalist in style, portray stark and emotional scenarios that regular citizens of reform-era China are forced to face in their everyday lives. For Yu, plainness is a gift. It allows the voice of his characters to shine through, unburdened by verbiage, and lets events speak for themselves so that readers can experience their full weight and consequence.

Events may take an unexpected turn at any moment, and bonds are precarious

Boy in the Twilight, first published in 1999 in Chinese, is eloquently reinvigorated in English in a translation by Allan H. Barr, a teacher of Chinese at Pomona College, California. These 13 short stories, written between 1993 and 1998, see friends, foes, lovers and family members brought together in sharp snapshots of their inner or "hidden" lives.

Dentist-turned-writer Yu moved from working on open but silent mouths to giving voice to characters and contemporary issues in China. He is best known for his novels such as To Live (1992) and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995). Those longer works, while establishing him in the Chinese literary scene, have eclipsed his short fiction of the same period.

This collection of tales highlights Yu's true narrative talents, and with them the truth and tensions of modern China. Suffering and sin are juxtaposed with humour and irony in this gritty, honest melange of simple sketches, showing how quickly and frighteningly normalcy can be disturbed.

Amid the mistrust and misplaced loyalties come violence, confusion and heartache. Instability is exposed by the unravelling of mundane scenarios - the discovery of a secret key when tidying a house, or the unexpected arrival of a visitor during the day.

And from these cracks, lives can crumble and fall, particularly in the realm of relationships: friendships are strained and marriages can come undone.

When warmth or pity is found, it offers only fleeting respite to the cruelty and betrayals of Boy in the Twilight. But tenacity is no stranger here. Many of the collection's protagonists stay stoic, keeping their frustrations and hardships hidden; others settle their scores in public for fear of being seen as a fool or to assert their power.

The concept of "face" is, as ever in Chinese culture, critical, and can act as a potent catalyst - pride renders a husband deaf to claims of legitimate innocence when he arrives home to find his wife alone with another man; false courage is the downfall of one father as he tries to elevate himself in his son's eyes; and beatings are taken and delivered to punish and earn respect.

Be it a single character's hamartia or inherent ill will, or pressure from outside forces in society, in many cases the dust kicked up by these events refuses to settle and the only outcome is tragedy.

In spite of his sparing prose, Yu delivers wonderful and vivid character portrayals. It is his plain style which lends itself to the raw honesty encountered in his characters - flaws are laid bare, private lives exposed - and which lets the distinct narrative voice of each one shine through, whether it's the bully or the village idiot being tormented, the jealous husband or his stifled wife.

This collection presents the "fractures and fluidities in human relationships", as translator Barr succinctly writes in his introduction. These are not scenarios that will always sit easy with readers: a wife has an affair with her husband's friend ( Why There was No Music), a treasured pet is cruelly murdered ( No Name of My Own), a husband asks for a divorce after waiting on bitter tenterhooks to see if his wife is pregnant ( On the Bridge).

Boundaries are pushed, loyalties and love are tested, and violence is pervasive, manifesting itself in fistfights, broken fingers, murder and suicide. The nuances and subtleties of the characters' interactions are contradicted with drastic and irrational, sometimes absurd, actions.

Yet in these small towns and villages, on dirt roads and during crowded journeys, Yu evokes empathy and compassion. Captured in these characters' pain is a certain poignancy, and while Yu's words may speak for China's citizens and their daily struggles, the emotions borne out in these pages - loss, regret, love, fear, insecurity - resonate universally.

It's no wonder that Yu's works have been translated into more than 20 languages: they are a force that can move readers to tears, endearing and absorbing in their humble eloquence.

Boy in the Twilight serves as a reminder that life is unstable and unpredictable. Events may take an unexpected turn at any moment, and bonds are precarious. Reference points must be reframed.

As the characters are forced to reassess their trust and accept new realities, readers, too, must re-examine their comfort levels and expectations. These tales hinge on contrasts and tensions. We simultaneously detest characters and admire others, see certain actions as destructive and reinforcing, and find bleakness and hope in the messages Yu delivers.

While Yu carefully puts in place each piece of these stories and brings them to life, he leaves readers pondering their outcomes and intentions, and also asks us to draw our own conclusions about morals and assumptions.

It is what remains "hidden", left unsaid, in these vignettes that is most captivating. Yu's language may be uncomplicated and his stories slight, but Boy in the Twilight paints a violent and visceral picture of how menacing society can be.

He has exposed a darker, painful side of ordinary life in China and invited us to see things as they truly are - frightening both in their simplicity and their strength.