Tuesday, May 06, 2008

120 Views of China

The Pearl Jacket and Other Stories:
Flash Fiction from Contemporary China

By Elinor Teele

[1] The Pearl Jacket and Other Stories: Flash Fiction
from Contemporary Chinaby Shouhua Qi (Editor)Stone Bridge Press,
370 pp.CLR Rating:

120 Views of China

Just in time for the Olympics comes a compilation to turn to during a lull in the archery rounds. Indeed, with most of these 120 translated stories sneaking in under 1000 words, you could probably whip through a couple before a loosened arrow even hits the target.

Tempting as this might be, it would not be fair to the authors featured here. Flash fiction, or the “smoke-long story,” or the “skinny story,” as it is sometimes called in China, is short, true. But as anyone who has tried to write a thank you card knows, brevity ain’t easy.

Nor is it truly fair to view this book as a kind of primer on all thoughts Chinese (or mainland China, for that matter – 19 are from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan). After all, one doesn’t expect E. Annie Proulx’s work to bear much relation to T.C. Boyle’s, despite the shared vocabulary.

Still, literature of language remains a convenient umbrella, broad enough to shelter lots of divergent stories. It’s the one the editor and translator of this book, Shouhua Qi, favors, and we’ll take his lead. How the authors, saturated in the wider world and their own traditions, feel about this label is a tale for a different day.

To first impressions, then. Not surprisingly, the best authors here share a bond with flash fiction writers in any language. They have just enough story and description to give weight to their narrative, coupled with a grace and lightness of touch. The space around the words, the blank that the readers must fill in with their imagination, is as important as what is printed.

In “The Story Outside My Window,” by Yide’erfu, for instance, a ragged peasant wearing an old white fur coat squats near the protagonist’s city window. The old man insists that he will be able to sell it as an heirloom to rich foreigners, and resists any argument:

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