Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Eileen Chang

Damn. This woman can WRITE. I first came across her work when I had to read "The Golden Cangue" for a Chinese lit class I took in college.

Eileen Zhang (Zhang Aileen) has perfected the art of the novella and short story. Most of her work is set in pre-WWII/WWII era Shanghai and Hong Kong. Chang's characters are not the hard scrabble peasants of Mo Yan's Gaomi township. Chang focuses on the fading elite. Old families whose fortunes are made or waning. She focuses are modern, Western young adults, caught in the traditional lifestyles of their parents.

How can you not love such passages as:

When the drops of rain hit the cement and caught a bit of light, they twirled around and shot out beams of silver light--long, long beams of light, like the silver skirts of ballet dancers.

Her prose is full of beautiful and elegant metaphors and phrasing, but not so full of them that they weigh everything down.

Life was like the Bible, translated from Hebrew to Greek, from Greek to Latin, from Latin to English, from English to Mandarin Chinese. When Cuiyuan read it, she translated the Mandarin to Shanghaiese. Something did not come through.

If you are unfamiliar with Chang's works, start with the exquisite collection, Love in a Fallen City

This collection of novellas and short stories encapsulates her work well. These are short glimpses into brief encounters between men and women. Men in women in love, men and women in lust, men and women trapped by circumstance and time, thinking the other might be able to help them.

Plus, look at how she shifts in time in "The Golden Cangue"

The green bamboo curtain and a green and gold landscape scroll reflected in the mirrors went on swinging back and forth in the wind--one could get dizzy watching it for long. When she looked again, the green bamboo curtain had faded, the green and gold landscape was replaced by a photograph of her deceased husband, and the woman in the mirror was ten years older.

I could drown in Chang's prose. I get lost in it. It is evocative of an era. Her scenes are lush, her dialogue and plot are fraught and taut, without crossing that line into ick.

She never over explains things, if anything, she under-explains them.

Such is the case of Lust, Caution.

I had to read the end three times before I fully understood what happened. For the first half of this novella, we see a young woman waiting for her old lover (both married.) She is nervous and tense, and the reader easily falls into the trap of believing her emotions are due to fear of being discovered.

And of course, they are. But not by her lover's wife. But rather, in this Japanese-occupied Shanghai because she is a Nationalist spy, the femme fatale, her lover a target that she is setting up.

And that's when the story turns. But all 57 pages hold tension, like a single plucked violin string.


Also, usually Wade-Giles transliterations bug me, so I loved the translator's note that she went with Wade-Giles over pinyin in order to keep the mood of the piece. I think it was a choice that really worked, and I'm happy that it was a conscious decision and that she included that information.


Anonymous said...

So you read a translation of Lust, Caution? Who translated it? Have you read her work in Chinese? I tried reading Lust, Caution in the original and it was difficult, I just wanted to know. What did you think of the movie?


Jennie said...

I read the translation by Julia Lowell. My Chinese skills aren't up to tackling Chang's work.

I haven't seen the movie yet. If it came to town, I missed it, so I think I'm going to have to wait until I can Netflix it. Did you see it? What did you think?

Anonymous said...

It's a wonderful movie, I think this is Ang Lee's best work so far. Every shot is beautifully composed and the tension is just sublime. He seems to be able to cut deep into any human context and find the weaknesses. It's probably too late, but my advice is not to read ANY reviews about it before you see it, because movie reviewers in the US just don't know what they're talking about, they really do have ADD or something. Anyway, I think it's coming out on DVD by January.