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from the November 2018 issue

“The April 3rd Incident” Showcases Yu Hua’s Daring and Unconventional Style

Reviewed by Andrew Hungate

This collection of early stories by the celebrated Chinese author shows a writer determined to make a name for himself in a literary world that at the time was rife with experimentation.

In the title story of Yu Hua’s The April 3rd Incident: Stories, the narrator hears his family and friends whispering about something that will happen on April 3rd. There is no reason to suspect that this event is any more nefarious than a birthday party, but the narrator immediately starts entertaining ominous thoughts about the conversation he has overheard. The sense of a plot against him becomes so intense that he ends up leaving his hometown on a train. His destination is not necessarily any clearer than the mess he leaves behind, but at least, he thinks to himself, “he was now moving farther and farther away from the plot.”

This and the other early stories collected in this volume were first published by its author—now one of the most celebrated Chinese fiction-writers of his generation—between 1987 and 1991. As Yu Hua’s first published fiction, they show a much more experimental and daring literary ambition than later (and currently more well-known) works, such as his novels To Live (1993) and Brothers (2005). Reading The April 3rd Incident, it is possible to see Yu Hua “moving farther and farther away from the plot.” Only in this case, the “plot” that these early stories seem keen to avoid is the narrative one, the ordering of events in a story according to a conventional structure of beginning, middle, and end. 

When he wants to achieve a certain effect, or experiment with narrative form, Yu Hua goes beyond what many of his predecessors both in China and abroad were practicing. Yu Hua’s early writing has often been compared to the works of Kafka, a natural parallel, considering the sharp feeling of restlessness in Yu Hua’s prose and its repertoire of lonely, alienated protagonists. It would be just as easy, however, to think of such writers as Kawabata, Barthelme, or Borges in comparison. More important is the overall impression that Yu Hua is jumping, even clawing, at postmodernism. This spate of early stories shows a writer determined to make a name for himself in a literary world that at the time was rife with experimentation.

The brilliant “In Memory of Miss Willow Yang” shows Yu Hua at his most experimental. The story begins with a young man who lives in the town of Smoke. He enjoys wandering the town alone, and one day he meets an “outlander” who tells him a story about ten “time bombs” that were buried in Smoke back in 1949. The outlander himself heard this story ten years earlier from a fisherman on a bus. 

“Ten years ago,” the outlander says to the narrator, “That’s to say, May 8th, 1988.” 

The narrator corrects him: “You mean 1978.” 

“If it had been 1978,” the outlander says, “that would be twenty years ago.”

After the initial contradiction in dates, this story starts switching quickly from third person to first to back to third again, narrating the lives of the outlander, the protagonist, and the Nationalist officer who planted the bomb. Their stories share so many elements that they become the same story—a trauma of confused actors and causes. One of the characters begins to feel the presence of a small, imaginary girl in his heart. “The sound of her breathing was so minute, it called to mind the furrows formed by the wrinkles on my face.” Another character receives a corneal transplant from a girl who died after being struck by a truck driver from the People’s Liberation Army. A third character visits a different dead girl’s father and sees next to her bed a detailed pencil drawing of the Nationalist officer. None of the bombs explode—at least not on scene. As anchors of the different timelines, the bombs are a reminder of the limits of human action and intention.

Anything we may expect from a plot washes away in the shifting voice, leaving behind a handful of vibrant motifs. Unexploded ordnance, especially in areas that experienced intense World War II-era bombing, is a kind of time device in itself, keeping past conflicts present, unseen but still capable of killing. The alienated characters who live alone, in apparent danger of split identities and random accidents, feel reminiscent of a post-Mao China in which the artist grappled with new creative freedoms; it was a liberating but also vertiginous and highly self-conscious time. And finally there is love, a strange counterpart to Yu Hua’s other themes but a natural subject for any young writer. 

The difficulties and dangers of love in fact propels the drama in all of these stories, and often seems to infuse the strongest moments of Yu Hua’s writing. “Love Story” is a traditional narrative about a high school couple traveling outside their city to an abortion clinic. The boy is cruel to the girl, and forces her to sit far away from him and to accomplish “her business” quickly and alone. In this story, too, the narration alternates between first and third person. The meaning of this splintered perspective is not clear until the end, when we realize that the boy has been thinking back on this incident after ten years have passed. He has now married the girl, but no longer wants to be with her. “Neither of us can give the other any surprise at all,” he complains. It is a simple argument, but far-reaching: The boy’s memories are controlling his present. The girl’s response is equally simple. “In all the time I’ve known you, there’s just once you’ve been a wreck,” she says. “When was that?” asks the boy, thinking of the abortion. “Now,” she responds, speaking to the gap in their remembered experience. 

Love is also conjoined with fear in Yu Hua’s writing—fear of persecution, accident, and disruption. From the young boy of “Summer Typhoon,” who fantasizes about his physics teacher’s wife while struggling to predict a potential earthquake, to the truck driver of “Death Chronicle,” who runs over a beautiful young girl and, while trying to save her life, is mauled to death by her townspeople with iron rakes, hoes, and sickles, Yu Hua’s characters all suffer physical consequences of their love. The man with the invisible young woman in his heart allows his mind to stray too far and apparently causes the death of the invisible woman’s living counterpart. Then, when the young man himself steps out to buy curtains one day, he too gets hit by a car: “I heard the crisp snap of bones breaking and felt the blood in my veins thrown into chaos, as though a riot had erupted.” Yu Hua emphasizes the danger of stories born from love, as a story may confuse and overwhelm love.

Allan Barr’s translation appears stilted in places, but this could be the result of Yu Hua’s own style, which overreaches occasionally in pursuit of an effect. In the opening paragraph of the collection, for instance: “Sunlight had sneaked in through the window . . . a skein of sunshine reached my pant leg; the little splotch of leaping light made me think of a golden flea.” Yu is also fond of the unexpected simile: “Rosy light sprinkled itself everywhere, like fresh blood, and the sun fell slowly like a punctured balloon.” Elsewhere the translation is flawless. “Death Chronicle” in particular is a superb achievement: the rambling, matter-of-fact narrator sounds right out of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It is difficult to translate prose from an ideographic language like Chinese, as the rhythm has to be invented anew, but Barr walks the right line between symbolic imagery and lively English, while sometimes suppressing the former in favor of a flowing style. 

For readers familiar with Yu Hua’s work, The April 3rd Incident will reveal the strong, even violent artistic tendencies that Yu Hua has since moved away from, as well as inklings of the more politically informed novels he has written since (Chronicles of a Blood MerchantBrothers). There are no explicit political themes in The April 3rd Incident, but it is remarkable how Yu manages to infuse even such nondescript details as names, dates, and songs with political significance simply by his manner of description. In the title story, for instance, the unknown event that will take place on April 3rd feels urgent because of its tacit reference to student-led protests that led to national uprisings, such as the May Fourth Movement (1919) and the June Fourth Movement (1989), even while the surrounding story has nothing to do with politics. Yu Hua deftly confuses his timelines to make the present feel just as historical and ill-remembered as the past, so while the residue of the Cultural Revolution can be felt everywhere, and while new love erupts everywhere, the present does not become a more privileged ground for truth.


© Andrew Hungate. All rights reserved.

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