Madwoman on the Bridge by Su Tong Black Swan, HK$128 'History, as I see it,' Su Tong wrote in his novel My Life as An Emperor, 'is music and singing outside of the walls, nightmares of rainy nights. I, as history sees me, am but a frog in a well.' Whether truck drivers, fertility experts, folklorists, book-keepers or geologists, the characters in the short stories of Madwoman on the Bridge are simultaneously trapped within the well and hollering outside its walls. They exist in the tumult between China's rising cities ('constructed of indistinguishable demolition zones') and its countryside ('frozen, endless lands'), between learning and knowledge ('You intellectuals, curious about everything. But can you eat curiosity?'), between revolutionary childhoods and capitalist adulthoods. The work is razor sharp, a box of slivers that highlights Su Tong's observations of China across a span of almost three decades and a fascinating addition to his previously translated books, Raise the Red Lantern and Rice. 'I'm no thief, of course I'm not,' says Yu Yang, the gripping voice of Thieves, as he launches into a stark, in-the-moment confession of childhood deceit, obsession and callous betrayal. Slowly, Yu unravels his boyhood friendship with the blacksmith's son, Tan Feng. Not yet 10 years old, Tan is an accomplished thief whose booty, consisting of fly-swatters, thimbles and contraceptive pills, is in Yu's opinion 'a random assortment of tat'. One object, however, lights up the imagination of both boys and Yu becomes determined to possess it. As storyteller and thief, Yu remains haunted by, yet unashamed of, his actions. 'It wasn't in my nature,' he tells his rapt audience. 'It was all because of the little red train.' His choices shed light on the generation that came of age in the 1960s, children shaped by the promise of socialism and the frustration of unfulfilled desires. A century of shifting political winds has created a society where the ground is muddy and often treacherous, where men and women inevitably sully themselves in the rough struggle to stay on top. In The Private Banquet, embittered beauty Shaohong sums up the result: 'People's value depreciates, like everything else.' Over and over, the question is asked: who is the storyteller and can his account of the past be trusted? 'I want you to believe that everything I say really happened,' says the narrator of the haunting The Q of Hearts. 'We all interrogated him with fervent eyes,' says a voice, like a Greek chorus, in Goddess Peak. In story after story, speaker and listener travel backwards to a history vividly remembered but, even now, little understood. Still, each person clings to the details, the peculiarity of his memories, as hometowns and acquaintances age, transform or outright disappear. 'I'm called Lin! It's me, Lin!' a distraught truck driver exclaims to a bar girl in Weeping Willow. 'Damn it,' he says at last. 'It's not like I was counting on you to remember me.' In Atmospheric Pressure, Meng returns to Tiancheng, city of his childhood, but '... to know whether any trace of him had remained in the disorder of the rubble, you would have had to ask the rubble itself.' Homes are bulldozed, neighbours vanish and families can no longer afford to be kind. In Home in May, a woman finally returns to her hometown Licheng after seven years away, only to find her brother's apartment empty and the town unrecognisable. 'It's a shame you still remember Licheng,' her son berates her pitilessly, 'because Licheng forgot about you a long time ago.' For me, Su Tong's stories arrive like missives from the past, charting a country in the throes of creating its own modernity. I am perplexed as to why the English publication fails to mention that the 14 stories here have been selected by translator Josh Stenberg and that the earliest pieces (including the title story) were originally published on the mainland in the mid-1980s. Instead, the impression given by publisher Black Swan is that Madwoman on the Bridge is the translation of a single, recent work. I only became aware of the extraordinary span of this collection after questioning several mainland writers; one of those acquaintances finally put in a call to Su Tong himself. Not long ago, in Hong Kong, I was surprised to hear a self-described literature expert bemoan the state of the western novel as practised by modern Chinese writers (a conundrum of a statement). Even more bizarrely, this expert was unable to read or speak Chinese. The truth is, those of us reading in English are latecomers to the Chinese party. Su Tong's short stories are new to us, but his dissection of society has been going on for decades within China. The stories here are astonishing: confident, elegant, piercing. They combine the morality of the traditional fable with the cool observation of modern realism. Madwoman on the Bridge is a complicated - sometimes bewildering, sometimes familiar - gathering of echoes, from voices that ring, beautifully and disturbingly, outside the well. Madeleine Thien is currently writer in residence with the Shanghai Writers' Association. Her most recent book is Certainty, a novel.