Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Wang Anyi : The Song of Everlasting Sorrow

What's most remarkable about this historical novel is how well it avoids the major historical events of its period -- Shanghai 1945-1985. It's as if civil war, famine, social reorganization, and cultural revolution had never occurred -- and our heroine, Wang Qiyao, might as well have been living in the Tang Dynasty -- because, as the title of the novel suggests-- her problem is timeless in Chinese civilization : she's a concubine whose high-class owner has died, so she is left lonely and unprotected - in everlasting sorrow.

She has many positive qualities: beauty, practical smarts, modesty, endurance, taste --- but what she lacks is the ability to imagine a new life for herself --- so she drifts along -- kept afloat by what men see in her -- until finally -- when all they can see is a tired, old woman -- she sinks. (or mercifully - is murdered - or is it really a suicide ?)

Well --- nobody lives forever --- and she got 55 years of love and life during a catastrophic historical era -- so she is something of a success story. She even has a child (and most ordinary citizens only got to have one) -- who marries a smart, sensitive guy and moves to America.

And yet -- there seems to be something tragic about her story -- as if something important were missing from her life.

She certainly does not qualify as a good Confucian girl -- since she pays practically no attention to her parents -- even though they live close enough to assist her with her new child. Nor would she be a good Communist -- and given her old-style sentiments, it's amazing her cache of gold was not uncovered by the Red Guards. She was completely ignored by them.

She doesn't really have anything to live for -- except for the pleasures of each passing moment -- a meal well cooked -- a party with friends - an occasional night of love - or just watching the shadows move across her room as the evening approaches.

But mostly that was enough. The only thing intolerable was old age -- but does anyone enjoy that ?

I just get the feeling -- that the only problem here was the limitations of her library. Just before she took that fateful step of moving into the "Alice Apartments"-- that library only seemed to include two books: "A Dolls House" by Ibsen and "Western Wing" by Shi-fu Wang -- and there's no mention of any books read ever again.

Is Wang Qiyao really a typical bright, attractive Shangai girl ? The author goes to some effort to establish the typicality of all her characters and settings -- so we're not just contemplating the destiny of one person -- but of an entire city -- and indeed, an entire civilization. (and -- she might be taking that a bit too far -- at least, for my credibility)

But -- perhaps -- from a traditional woman's point of view -- everything important really is the same -- all that matters in life is how you feel in the kitchen and the bedroom - then, now, and forever.


And regarding the bedroom -- what's interesting in this story is how sex is an unrelenting disaster -- destroying social opportunities, ending relationships -- and finally -- ending her will to live.

The specific time she clearly enjoys the physicality of it --- is when she's in the practiced arms of a Russian-Chinese playboy -- whom she is duping into taking responsibility for another man's child.


And here is an excellent review by Francine Prose