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‘The difference between people and rivers’ [book review]

A review of The Book of Shanghai, ed. Jin Li and Dai Congrong

Literature is unquestionably one of the best ways to get under the skin of a place, and if you’re keen to explore one city in particular it is equally incontestable that the superb ‘The Book of . . .’ series by Comma Press is one of the best places to start. Each anthology brings together the voices of several writers and translators to offer a diverse and intimate picture of one city, from those already much read about in English to those with whom readers may be less familiar. As an introduction to a place and the authors associated with it, it’s an approach that, in my book, is difficult to beat.

The Book of Shanghai

The Book of Shanghai contains ten stories set in a city I once visited briefly and still think of often. For me, at least, Shanghai has a particular allure that is captured beautifully by each of these writers, even as they delve into the labyrinthine backstreets far removed from that familiar glittering skyline. Although making reference to iconic areas of Shanghai – the Bund, the French Concession, the towers of the financial district – the stories contained in this anthology are far more concerned with everyday Shanghai, with the regular people who make up this city, with modern lives taking place in a fast-paced, futuristic environment in which the past somehow refuses to go away. Although aware of this right the way through, I found it was brought home particularly forcefully by the penultimate story, ‘Suzhou River’, in which the main character describes how the view from his window encompasses ‘the arse of the Bund’ – in other words, the famous riverside buildings seen from behind. And that, really, is what this anthology is all about: it gives us a different take on things, a view of ‘the arse of the Bund’, and Shanghai is all the better for it.

‘Suzhou River’, written by Cai Jun and translated by Frances Nichol, is one of the stranger stories in the book, featuring a main protagonist who finds himself floating down the river in a bathtub after a freak flood washes him out of his home. As well as having a memorable plot, it contains some wonderful ideas, including an elucidation of ‘the difference between people and rivers’ – something I had never thought to think about before. The answer, apparently, lies in the fact that ‘a person can only take one road at a time [. . .] A labyrinth presents endless possibilities, and only the river can finally make its way out.’ A striking and rather melancholic thought in the setting of this labyrinthine city, but also a strangely beautiful one. It gives immense power to both the city itself and the natural force at its heart, taking the story to a plane beyond the individual.

While Fu Yuehui does focus on the individual in ‘The Lost’, translated by Carson Ramsdell, we also find ourselves confronted by a city of millions and hard-to-answer questions about the role technology plays in our lives. Upon losing his phone, Gu Lingzhou goes through a series of what could be life-transforming epiphanies, trapped in a life that comes more and more to resemble a bad dream. Using elements of absurdism, Fu Yuehui tackles ‘the immense convenience of an information age’ head-on, questioning the way we live now in a parable-like tale that applies far beyond its setting of Shanghai and, read today, seems rather prescient in its examination of how short-lived the effects of such epiphanies can be.

Many of the stories in The Book of Shanghai pit the individual against the collective, which seems only natural given the sheer size and scale of the city they are set in. The figures we meet within the pages of this anthology are varied and fascinating: an old lady who collects rubbish and stores it in her empty flat, a new wife who finds company and comfort in the mysterious figure of an elderly lady she meets in a coffee shop, a young woman who runs a fruit stall, a novelist who lives in the attic of his publishing house. Each author displays their own particular style of writing – the differences clearly transported by their respective translators – and offers us a glimpse into the city’s innumerable neighbourhoods, mind-sets and livelihoods, not to mention a vast and shifting array of daily concerns forced by gender, age, class and social expectations. Read all together, these stories add up to a vivid portrait of a multifaceted city – and, at the same time, the sense that they have only just scratched the surface.

One element that makes this anthology particularly enjoyable to read is the way in which the stories have been ordered. The progression from realism to surrealism offers a pleasing reflection of Shanghai’s own journey towards futurism and also indicates the ways in which the city’s literary culture has changed over the years – an evolution outlined in a thorough introduction written by editor Dr Jin Li. While the final story, Chen Qiufan’s ‘State of Trance’, was perhaps a little too much for me – reading it felt like being trapped inside a video game – I appreciated Josh Stenberg’s lively, flowing translation, the unusual second-person narration, and the marked contrast between this and the slower, more recognisable pace of the first couple of stories. Reading The Book of Shanghai had been a kind of journey – literary travel of the best possible kind.

The Book of Shanghai, edited by Jin Li and Dai Congrong, is published by Comma Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing me with a review copy.


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