The April 3rd Incident
by Yu Hua
Pantheon

The April 3rd Incident collects recent short stories by China’s literary enfant terrible.

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Yu Hua’s reputation owes much to his experiments with avant-garde techniques (sudden leaps in time or perspective, unholy clashes of comedy and tragedy), his relish of violence and the scatological (toilets both sumptuous and rudimentary proliferate in his inter­national breakthrough, Brothers, 2005), and how such devices drive the political intent of his writing: the jagged edges of Yu’s fiction reflect “realities of modern Chinese society [that] are even more fantastical than fiction”.

The cherry on top of Yu’s bad-boy reputation is his standing in his homeland: having generated a critical storm with Brothers’ pyrotechnics, China in Ten Words (2010) went a step further and was banned on the mainland.

Given these destabilising contexts, it is no surprise to learn that the “incident” in Yu’s new book remains blurry. Of course, with seven stories on offer, there is no end of incidents. Most involve death, mainly of the curious variety: a man is forced to attend the funeral of someone he claims he has never met; a truck driver kills two young people decades apart, with nearly supernatural consequences. Elsewhere we are treated to earthquakes, typhoons, unwanted pregnancies, marital breakdowns, riots, unexploded bombs, and a quest to find a girl who donated her eyes to a nearly blind man.

Nor does the story actually titled “The April 3rd Incident” help much. Detached woozily from the world around him, its narrator struggles to pin down almost anything so obvious as an incident, as material reality wobbles before his eyes or at his touch. Here he describes the seemingly uncomplicated act of touching a key in his pocket: “The object seemed to have merged with his fingers, and so it was as though it no longer existed […] Now he needed to think: To whom was the key related?” Here he is, quite literally struggling to put one foot in front of another: “He only knew and did not feel that he was walking along the street. This realisation took him aback.”

Perhaps the most obvious contender for the “incident” comes from beyond the text: Yu’s own birthday is April 3, 1960, although knowing his playful work and general disregard for critics, this is as likely to be a red herring as a pathway to meaning.

Similar baseline uncertainty corresponds to the collection’s overriding moods: by turns disorientating, hallucinatory and possibly hallucinogenic. In “As the North Wind Howls”, our protagonist lies in bed in such desultory fashion he can hardly move a hand to rub sleep from his eye, or (raising laziness to new heights) swivel an eyeball to look at his clothes tossed “casually over the chair”. While he regrets such idleness, he seems unable to overcome it until a “brawny fellow” bursts literally through his door yelling, “Your friend’s dying, and you’re still not up?”

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That our narrator has no idea who this dying friend might be is almost as astounding as the fact he gets dressed. Suffice to say, by the time they arrive at his bed, he has died. Are we untangling a cosmic joke worthy of Franz Kafka (one of Yu’s avowed early heroes) or is the narrator’s passivity so satirically significant he cannot engage with the broader world?

Similarly vexed questions are posed in succeeding stories. “The April 3rd Incident” opens: “Standing by the window at eight in the morning, he looked out and seemed to see a lot of things, but none of them really registered – he was conscious only of a bright yellow patch on the ground. That’s sunshine, he thought.” The prose is typically plain-speaking, but confounds nevertheless.

Yu returns repeatedly to the same scenes, people and phrases, albeit in slightly different configurations. Most often, our narrator makes skittish progress down the street, sometimes in search of a former classmate, sometimes towards the house of a male friend, but just as often down strange alleyways in pursuit of a stranger who, he believes, may be a spy. The events may be real or a prophetic dream. Whichever it is, we can certainly empathise with the narrator when he complains: “The past had gone out the door and faded into the far distance, but future days had yet to make their move.”

Yu is a master of paranoia, evoking both its proximity to comedy and its darker undertones

The story shows that Yu is a master of paranoia, evoking both its proximity to comedy and its darker undertones. While the “spy” standing underneath a plane tree affects a nonchalant demeanour, our narrator isn’t fooled: “the non­chalance was just an act.” Such thinking is as impreg­nable as it is absurd: the more the world protests its innocence, the guiltier it looks to so tormented a mind. When his parents intervene with appar­ent concern, they are immediately met with suspicion.

Yu offers a variation on this theme in the similarly epic “In Memory of Miss Willow Yang”. Another male narrator roams the streets of a vaguely comprehended town (“Smoke”), obsesses over significant dates, and views every other human with mistrust. “I refuse all dangerous associations – mainly the smiles of strangers,” he says. “I can easily detect the sinister intentions they are so bent on concealing.”

This mind wheels around one girl, seemingly killed in a traffic accident, who donates her irises to the protagonist, another girl (possibly invented) who almost psychically invades his mind, and a man (“the outlander”) who tells him the story of Tan Liang, who in 1949, during the civil war, planted 10 “time bombs” around “Smoke”: two of which remain to be found and exploded. The time bombs work equally well as a description of Yu’s story (which flies backwards and forwards in history), our narrator’s mind and China itself, which may be exploding upwards and onwards with exponential energy, but cannot escape its past. This political narrative is entwined with a deeply moving story of personal trauma that, suffice it to say, suddenly explains the preceding chaos without lessening its effect.

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This proves typical of the way intense emotion ripples the deceptively terse surfaces of Yu’s whirling narratives. Take the gruff, self-justifying truck driver in “Death Chronicle”, who can only bury his role in two deaths for so long, or the tears that drop unbidden from the narrator of “In Memory of Miss Willow Yang” as his sight fails. Do we read these characters’ indifference, passivity or apathy as self-defence against grief or as symptoms of some broader socio-political malaise? It’s as if trauma will out, whether witnessed or not.

One thinks of the hidden time bombs that explode about a decade after they were set. Are these metaphors for shocks to the Chinese psyche such as the Cultural Revolution or, to quote Yu, China’s current “societal progress [which] has already damaged an entire generation of young people who revere materialism”.

A comparable parable underscores the final and longest story, “Summer Typhoon”. Under “the sombre summer sky of 1976”, a student named Bai Shu believes he was the first person in China to detect the Tangshan earthquake: he was alone when the “earthquake monitoring station” he built with his physics teacher suddenly registered a sharp abnormality. Bai Shu is mocked for suggesting they inform Beijing: “How do we report? To whom?”, his teacher asks testily. He is mocked again when he alone refutes the rumour that a similar catastrophe will strike their own region.

Yu’s stories gain their considerable power by making us feel the disturbances they narrate – be they personal, political, historical or natural

As the story drifts between Bai Shu’s isolation (and his infatuation with his teacher’s wife) and impressions of those camping under makeshift tents in torrential rains, one feels how an individual consciousness can contend with a vast national sense of self.

“All it takes is for one person to say so, and everyone follows suit,” a character suggests. “Is it heroes who create history?” the students are asked, almost rhetorically. “Or is it the masses who create history?” The obvious answer, the latter, makes it almost impossible for the individual to deviate from the will of the majority, even when that majority (and possibly the individual as well) are making a catastrophic mistake.

Yu’s stories gain their considerable power by making us feel the disturbances they narrate – be they personal, political, historical or natural. His jagged forms command our attention, even as they occasionally confound it. One senses method in the madness. Is Yu training us, demanding we bring the same intensity of focus required for his more challenging work to our trying lives, societies and times. The April 3rd Incident reinforces Yu as China’s boldest and smartest literary agent provocateur. The world has never needed him more.