We had meant to post this earlier but PRI’s The World recently interview John Balcom, the translator of the just-published There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Chinese writer Cao Naiqian.
The World: Why do you think it is important that Western readers become acquainted with Cao Naiqian? What is your favorite story in the collection?
John Balcom: There are a number of reasons I think it is important that Western readers become acquainted with Cao Naiqian. Most of all, he is a fine writer, a marvelous talent. I have been reading and translating Chinese literature for over a quarter of a century and this work was one that cried out immediately to be translated. Good books deserve to be translated and known, that’s the bottom line here. The stories he tells are worth reading — stepping into the world depicted by Cao is troubling, but also moving; it is a side of China that most are not familiar with.
As for a favorite story, that is hard to say – there are too many of them. I read the work more as a novel and think it is best appreciated as a whole. The cumulative effect of the stories is staggering.
The World: Why do you think his writing departs, so radically, from much of contemporary fiction in China?
John Balcom: This is an interesting question, because on some levels he is a throwback to an earlier age – these days as fiction has moved online, he writes about rural China and in a local dialect, all things that were encouraged by the state literary bureaucracy for decades. This is why I touched upon Zhao Shuli in my introduction. Zhao Shuli wrote about rural life in Shanxi before and after the revolution. He was a great storyteller, but was definitely working largely within the confines of the parameters established for literature at the Yenan Forum.
Cao Naiqian has no such limitations and explores realms that have been off limits to fiction in China for a long time – the polyandrous relationships in the poor countryside, for example, not to mention taboo subjects such as incest. Cao provides an honest portrait of the other China, the one that is not seen on international tours, the poor one that has lacked access to much of what most of us take for granted, adequate food and education, for example. In this regard he is a courageous writer. In political terms, what he writes about is something that would have been impossible to do just a few decades ago.
Another way in which Cao departs from contemporary writing is simply in the quality of his writing. Many contemporary writers are quite prolix and have little sense of style – they have stories to tell, but lack a sense of craftsmanship when it comes to writing. Cao, on the other hand, writes economically, more like a poet – remove one word and the whole thing falls apart. This is one thing that won’t necessarily be apparent to the reader of Chinese fiction in translation, mainly because most works of Chinese fiction in translation are heavily cut and edited in this country. My translation of Cao was not.
The World: In this collection he focuses on the shocking barbarity of life in a rural community in China during the Cultural Revolution. Why does he concentrate on the tawdry, especially sexual perversion?
John Balcom: Cao once commented that he wanted to write about the way people lived at a certain period. The characters in the book are scarcely able to rise above the realm of necessity. Food and sex are primary desires that are not fulfilled by the system. I quote from the “Book of Rites,” a Confucian classic, in my introduction to make the point that there are basic human motives that transcend time or place. I think it is the investigation of human motives on this level that drives Cao’s writing. He is dealing honestly with a realm of existence, which none of us has experienced, a world that is light years away from us.
The World: In moving stories such as “Wen Shan’s Woman” animals display more humanity than human beings. How much is Cao Naiqian’s dark vision of society influenced by his view of the Chinese government?
John Balcom: I don’t really see any overt political criticism as such, and I don’t think that was his intention. I think it is more subtle than that. Again, I think he is examining things at a much more basic level. Naturally, politics is evident throughout the work. Why do people exist on the level they do? What about the system has led to this situation? In the stories, Party members are usually depicted as self serving and incapable of dealing with anything serious – in the last story, for example, the authorities are more than happy to arrest a peeping tom, but as soon as soon as any danger is involved, they don’t want to get involved.
As I said, I think it is more basic and subtle than that. It strikes me that Cao is dealing with characters operating outside of any ideological system – they would do the same in a traditional Confucian system or a contemporary Communist one. Think of the character Dog, for instance. For him work is the most important thing in life – it doesn’t matter who he works for – the Japanese or the Communists. Also, think of the way justice is meted out in the village – there is no organized legal system. Rather a village elder makes the decisions. One gets the impression that that is the way things have been done since the beginning of time. In this way the village almost exists outside of time, approaching a place of myth.