There’s an old Chinese fable that goes like this: A weapons vendor at market touts his unbelievable spear (mao)—it can pierce shield (dun)! Then he turns around and talks up his amazing shield—it can withstand any spear! But then a child asks, “What happens if you use your own spear against your own shield?”
That tale spawned a noun in Mandarin: maodun—whose meaning falls somewhere between irony and paradox, and implies getting pulled in opposite directions. It’s a pretty good word for what’s been going on with Can Xue (pen name for 55-year-old Chinese writer Deng Xiaohua): The more vigorously she protests that her fiction isn’t political commentary, the firmer the consensus grows among Western critics that it’s a massive indictment of her homeland. Can Xue has had four books of surrealistic, sometimes grotesque short stories translated into English, each volume further cementing her reputation as a radical who offers, in the words of a 1991 New York Times review, “nightmare images of life under a punishing regime.” But Can Xue continues to insist she writes only of her inner world. “Real literature faces the soul,” she tells me, when I interview her with the aid of a translator at Manhattan’s Yale Club during her recent visit to the United States.
What’s going on here? Maybe the American view of China has become so politicized that we inevitably find critique where there is none. Or maybe a writer like Can Xue has to downplay her political themes to placate Beijing, which has suppressed her work in the past. But which is it? The new release of Five Spice Street, written in 1988 and her first full-length novel to be translated in English, is unlikely to resolve the issue.
A reader today might be forgiven for seeing the book as a dead-on portrayal of late-’80s anomie in the People’s Republic of China. With its excavation of rampant mistrust, spying, and carnal jealousy in a tight-knit rural community, Five Spice Street seems to peer through a magnifying glass at the disintegration of Mao’s utopian socialist order. The novel revolves around the ethereal Madam X, a transplant to the eponymous street—she and her husband run a fruit stand there, although it’s said they used to be party officials somewhere. (Is this a veiled reference to the decline in the prestige of the Maoist old guard?) Speculations about Madam X consume her neighbors, and her essential qualities change depending on whom you ask: Perhaps she’s a potent sexual sorceress, but perhaps her private life is completely banal. The denizens of Five Spice Street, who both despise and adulate her, can’t even collectively determine whether she’s 22 or 50 years old. She’s a temptress and a tease, driving the men and women alike wild, although they don’t know if she could even deliver the goods if they managed to possess her. Could Madam X represent that elusive Social Ideal, whether communism or democracy?
Way off, if you ask the Can Xue, who claims she’s operating on a different plane entirely. Calling Five Spice Street her “spiritual biography,” she tells me, the characters all represent her own desires and dissatisfactions, and that Madam X embodies the author’s personal idealized life. According to her, the story has nothing to do with the real world: Naturally she borrows details from daily existence, she says, but these are just “materials for her factory,” where she “weighs down everyday feelings to a deep place, and then retrieves them.” This method is responsible, she says, for the “strange feel” of her prose.
It’s certainly true that the novel is far from naturalistic, although it paints a more concrete, less dreamlike realm than her other translated work so far (Dialogues in Paradise, Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories, Old Floating Cloud: Two Novellas, and The Embroidered Shoes: Stories). But its atmosphere is still an uncanny one of occultism, portents, and metamorphoses. Characters’ eyes in particular are sites of magic—perhaps apt in a neighborhood consumed by voyeurism and rumor. “Flickering waves of light” are said to “radiate from Madam X’s eyes, turning people into grotesque shapes.” Meanwhile Old Woman Jin, a rival of Madam X, looks out of “two fluctuating red orbs, at once bulging out of her eye sockets, and all at once drawing back in.”
With her flair for supernatural-tinged farce, Can Xue is incessantly likened to Franz Kafka. But Five Spice Street even more recalls the output of another Eastern European modernist: the Polish short-story writer Bruno Schultz, whose fabulist tales of rural boyhood are cast in the same lush, earthy tones that resonate in Xue’s novel. Some of her anthropomorphic descriptions—“a puff of fog from a green meteor on the horizon startled the hill”—strike with Schultz’s dark beauty. And both writers’ power lies in their shaman-like ability to animate hyper-local superstitions and fears.
Schultz’s stories also took place against a significant historical backdrop—namely the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And while themes of social decay are ever-present beneath his writing, they never overpower the specificity of his imaginative universe. Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for reading Can Xue—her political context shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should it get in the way of appreciating her work for what it is—world-class art.