Contemporary Chinese Limbo

[Rating: 4/5]

Pros: father/adopted-son relationship

Cons: not much of an ending

Born in 1960 in Hangzhou, Zheijiang, the son of two physicians, Yu Hua is the living Chinese writer best known outside the PRC. Though some of his work has been unpublishable there, others have sold substantially, including the 1992 Huózhe (To Live) that was the basis for the 1994 Zhang Yimou movie starring Gong Li that was not only banned by led to a two-year ban on Zhang making films. IMO, Yu’s work is more deserving of a Nobel Prize than the two writers in Chinese who have received the award (Gao Xingjan and Mo Yan).

Yu_hua 2005.jpg

(Yu, ca. 2005)

Yu’s novel Diqitian, published in Chinese in 2013, translated by Allan H. Barr and published in the US by Pantheon in 2015 as The Seventh Day. Though quite melancholic and satirizing many aspects of PRC governance and society, it is gentler than some earlier Yu books, e.g., Shí Gè Cíhuì Lǐ De Zhōngguó (translated and published in English in 2011 as China in Ten Words) remains banned in the PRC.

On the first day, Yang Fei wakes up dead… and perplexed by instructions to go to a crematorium, recently euphemized as a “funeral home.” Once there, he finds that he/his sentient corpse cannot be processed, because he has neither a burial site nor an urn into which his ashes can be put.

He soon starts to meet others in this Chinese limbo, including his ex-wife, his birth mother, and a woman whose suicide he witnessed hours before his own death (caused by an explosion in a burning restaurant in which the family of proprietors was blocking the doorway endeavoring to collect payment for orders). “Mouse Girl” (so called because she lived underground in what was built as a bomb shelter) leapt off a tall building (after online discussion of sites for her suicide) because her boyfriend, who prevented her from making money in casual prostitution, gave her a knockoff iPod.

There are a group of embryos following the skeleton of a woman who saw them floating down a river and made a scandal of the hospital dumping and another group who died in a fire that officially had a death toll of only seven so that the cause would not be fully investigated (as any catastrophe in which more than nine died would have to be; two remain alive in critical condition), and a couple who died when the building in which they lived was demolished.

Those with burial plots awaiting them receive VIP treatment with padded seats rather than the plastic ones for ordinary corpses.

There is also the black comedy of a pair of recurrently bickering chess players with a macabre backstory and the tragic case of Mouse Girl’s boyfriend who sold a kidney to buy a burial plot for her.

I guess Yang Fei, who lived 41 years, could be said to “get closure” during his week of hanging out with the unburied/unburiable dead, who are more genial and kinder than the living and seem better off and more content than the traditional vision of dangerously “hungry ghosts” (Chiunese èguǐ,/ Buddhist preta).

Both Yang Fei and his father and the neighbor who breastfed the infant would seem more “self-sacrificing” to the reader if they had more self (or sense of self). I wouldn’t say they are “place-holders” in the Chinese Dante’s schema, but they are not very individuated (and less numerous than those Dante encountered in his visits to hell and purgatory).

In a 2004 interview while he was at the University of Iowa (http://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/yuhua/). Yu said: “What I had written in the 1980s, my attitude was that the writer knows everything, the writer is god and can create everything. So, these characters were more abstract, like signs. But later, in the 1990s, I suddenly discovered characters could actually have their own voices, that they could talk for themselves. When I first started writing, I knew what I would write next, and next, and what would follow after that, and would know that—well this part will be difficult, and this part will not. This all started to change when I began to have a different attitude toward the characters. I found that the characters could lead themselves. The story would lead itself. That is when I found the difficult parts were not so difficult anymore since the characters had control, and they would lead. I would give up a lot of control and let them take me through the story themselves. After this realization, I’ve noticed these characters have become more alive.”

It seems to me that the construction of a limbo in which skeletons with empty eye sockets can see (and even cry) and the contrivance of connections between Yang Fei and most everyone among the living dead is willed in the way Yu says he has abandoned. The devotion of Yang Fei and the railroad employee who found the newborn, raised him, and gave him his family name is touching, and that of his ex-wife whom he granted a divorce to pursue a business liaison strikes me as wish fulfillment even more than as sentimentality. But, then, Dickens is one of Yu’s favorite writers. (“There are a few writers I really like … Shakespeare, Dickens … I really like nineteenth century writers … Hawthorne … and of twentieth century Americans I like Faulkner the best. Among American writers still living, I like Toni Morrison the best.”)

I don’t think a novel needs to “add up” to anything in particular, and a lot of loose strings in the lives of Yang Fei and others are tied up, but the novel does not have much of an ending. Like a typical New Yorker story, it just ceases.

I think the novel would better have been titled “Seven Days” than the stress being on the “Seventh Day” (the “seventh” rather than “seven” is the choice made in the Chinese title); “Seven Days in Limbo” or “Seven Posthumous Days” would have been more informative. (And I prefer the Chinese cover design to the American one.)

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