The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 21 August 2014

An Empty Room

Hello Gentle Reader

According to the calendars at work, the seasons are split up into three months per season. The calendars however, are na├»ve in their idealistic endeavor to attempt to organize the year, and the seasons. In this corner of the world, winter can last – and generally does last six months of the year. Summer lasts at best for three months; but has the appearance of two months. Currently, we are in the month of August. Where June is wet, with rain and overcast skies; and July makes up for its predecessors, weeping disposition; August is a month of capricious weather. The storms are viciously violent, and temperamental. A normal rainstorm will become a thunderstorm. Were it once rained, it becomes hail – of varying sizes. With the winds gusts, it’s an onslaught of nature’s vandalism. Housing damaged; vehicles dented; windows cracked; siding pockmarked; gardens shredded; and trees stripped bare; petals scattered about. Such is the impulsive month of August. When August comes lurking about, the Autumnal anxiety, begins to twist inside of me. There is trepidation when August saunters around. Not just because of the storms that will surely arise; but because August begins to showcase the glow of the changing season. There is still the summer haze in the air; life is still abundant; but there is a gradual change slowing taking place. The crops are showing their maturation. The canola fields have ceased their blooming; and what was once green is now golden. The days have become shorter; and nights prolong their stay. The other night, the moon had taken on an amber flush to it. Could it have been from the wildfires? Perhaps. Yet upon looking at it, it only proves to showcase that Autumn is around the corner. The ochre sheen was reminiscent of the harvest moon of Autumn. It is a moon in which one could have bonfires under and warm themselves, while enjoying the company of others. I have become more aware of the slight changes of the landscape, and the seasonal changing of the guard. Mu Xin writes about the changing season with delicate prose, that discuss the passage of time, in the backdrop of the changing seasons.

“In the temperate zone, at the start of each season, a sacred aura delicately begins to insinuate itself in the wind. While winter lingers on, springs’s cold air feels tender and moist as it stirs up private, fleeting memories.”

Mu Xin, who has had twenty plus books published in China and Taiwan; has only this collection to his name, in the English language. “An Empty Room,” is a collection of thirteen short stories that have been taken from three previously published works. The end result: a surprisingly well melded book of short stories. Mu Xin who passed away in two-thousand and eleven, was a well respected Chinese author and painter. Xin was born in nineteen-twenty seven and had experienced World War II, as well as the Cultural Revolution. Many of his earlier works, and manuscripts from that period in his life were confiscated and destroyed. Most of his written works were done in exile in America; furthering the painful irony, and lack of translation of his work into the English language. It was only later on in life that, his works became more and more appreciated in his homeland; especially those of his paintings. However, Mu Xin was a master of Chinese cultural and heritage; before the desegregation the Cultural Revolution had inflicted upon a beautiful and rich history. Mu Xin was one of the only surviving great contemporary masters, of the era, preceding the Cultural Revolution.

“An Empty Room,” is written in a Chinese genre called: “sanwen.” Though the term is generally referred to as “prose,” the translator makes the comment, that with Mu Xin, it is a special form of prose, which breaches and blurs the lines between fiction, essay and poetry. Many of the stories that are featured in “An Empty Room,” have an appearance of being, memory exercises, which eventually had slowly began to take on the appearance of a story, bit by bit. The first story in this collection is titled: “The Moment When Childhood Vanished.” Once I had let go the preconceived conception, from the back of the book, to expect something like a poetic essay, and read it as a story; it began to become more enjoyable, as I became less scrutinizing. The story itself, deals with a child, and a trip to a monastery for a ritual. Though our young first person narrator, does not understand the ritual or what is expected of him; he does what is expected of him. Participating in the ritual brings honour to his family; as well as honours the ancestors. Though our narrator has some rather confused and conflicting ideas about why this matters. As the story progresses it begins to lead up to its climatic moment; and finishes just as fast. The true joy in the story however is the epiphanic ending, which is foreshadowed by the title.

The stories of this collection might have a sense of what one may call a Chekhovian nature; but they are something else on their own as well. The stories that have a sense of being a ‘story,’ do rely on epiphanies in order to comment, on the subject matter or strike it home. However if I were to compare, these stories to another famous short story writer: they have the aesthetic sense of Kawabata’s “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.” In reality however, Mu Xin’s stories are his own, and towards the end the author had left his own mark on each of the stories. One aspect of these stories that I had found interesting, and did appear to go against the described: “builds an astonishing, linked bildungsroman,” was that one story in particular was out place (though not worth the read) against the others. “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” is a story that is not written from what I perceive to be a Chinese perspective. The story is narrated in the first person, but in actuality it is being told from the perspective of a English young woman, who is living with her aunt and uncle, and will inherit the house after they pass on. In the meantime, she waits on them – including making tea. I do not think this story for example fit into the traditional definition of what a bildungsroman is. It does follow the foot path of the other stories, by dealing with memory, and secrets; but other than thematic similarities it does not quite fit into the term: bildungsroman.

Miu Xin’s language is one of his defining characteristics in this book. It’s crystalline and subtle. It flows with grace, and a natural fluidity. The language is as contemplative, as the meditative work in which it is written into. Each word is carefully weighted and measured, before it is inserted in each story. No word is out of place; no passage is overtly verbose; everything in the end is compressed to the point of necessity; but not in a minimalist style. It’s a compression, which poetry utilizes; with the exception a story is being told. Yet, like poetry; the strengths of the stories relies on the remarkable use of language, that has been beautifully translated into English.

The later stories of this short story collection were a lot more interesting. The blurred lines between fiction and essay became less distinguishable. The works became more contemplative, and more philosophical. The outward gaze slowly turns inwards. The exterior landscape becomes a backdrop into the interior world. The later works became increasingly poetic, and philosophical in their discussions of varying subjects. There were times that the work itself, bordered on the sentimental. Yet it is Mu Xin’s cool style, and fluidity, that does not bring attention to over exaggerated emotion; which quickly extinguishes any feeling of forced emotion. Such as:

“Does love need appraisal? When the jewelry experts appraise the love between the Duke and the Duchess [Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson], what should be priceless will be given a price.”

“The Windsor Cemetery Diary,” is one of my favourite short stories of this collection. It’s a philosophical and subtle story that contemplates by the simple gesture of moving a coin, the realization of existence, and realizing the perception of someone else’s existence, without actually seeing them. However this is not a story that could be classified as existential; for the sole reason that this story, also deals with the concept of fate. It does not lecture the reader, on the fact that as individuals – cognitive beings – we are responsible to create meaning in our lives, and therefore give them purpose; and not fall into false theological devices and words like: “destiny,” or “fate.” Rather this is a story, that tackles varying subjects; but a simple gesture of turning a coin over soon becomes a ‘fated,’ action and a philosophical game in which one must continue, as in order to maintain in a sense the existence of each other.

“I, the head; the Other, the tail; after turning the coin several times, the message deepens:

“I exist.
I do not forget.
I am willing to continue.
As the heads-to-tails increases, the message acquires a new value:
I am the reason that the Other still exists.
How can I forget?
I can no longer discontinue this continuity.”

My Dear Gentle Reader, I have been putting off buying Mu Xin’s “An Empty Room,” for some time. Perhaps not intentionally; but it was put off. On this last book spree, there’s a level of confidence, and understanding, when I looked at the pile, and thought to myself: I’ve got a good pile here to work with, and to keep me engaged and delighted; while continually showing me that Literature is one of my greatest enjoyments and loves in this world. Mu Xin is a master at language and a master at writing in the short form. He evades ‘plot,’ traps, opens up for a new style, and says more in a short story of just a few pages, that it would take most writers, of a novel, to actually discuss in a novel of five hundred pages or more. The language itself is precise, and strikes without flinching, and is always dead on. This short story collection, has been one of my favourite books that I have read, as of late.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

No comments:

Post a Comment