Some Notes on the Hong Lou Men
It is one of the great themes of science fiction: somewhere in the future, a man wakes up who cannot remember who he is. In one story, he is an amnesiac in an impossible city, the inhabitants of which exchange identities on an almost nightly basis; in another, he is a great scientist stranded on an alien planet, who for decades has immersed himself so deeply in the achievements of a lost civilization that he becomes blind to the impulses of his darker nature. He is an ancient, immortal being, living thousands of years in the future, who must recover a past which he himself has deleted. He is a living battery, whose mind inhabits a fiction while his body gives life to a malevolent, almost infinite robotic intelligence. He is an android that believes he is a man, or a cryogenically frozen brain that must unravel the mystery of his own death, and of the sinister, disembodied presence that persecutes him. He is a time-traveler, haunted by a childhood memory that in the end he will recognize as the scene of his own death.
In seventeenth-century China, he was a stone.
“Long ago, when the goddess Nü-wa was repairing the sky, she melted down a great quantity of rock and, on the Incredible Crags of the Great Fable Mountains, molded the amalgam into thirty-six thousand, five hundred and one large building blocks, each measuring seventy-two feet by a hundred and forty-four feet square. She used thirty-six thousand five hundred of these blocks in the course of her building operations, leaving a single block unused, which lay, all on its own, at the foot of Greensickness Peak in the aforementioned mountains.”
So begins the Hong Lou Men, most often translated as The Dream of the Red Chamber, the great novel by Cao Xueqin and Gao E. Over the course of thousands of pages, and 120 chapters (the first eighty of which are by Cao), it tells the story of the stone as it is reincarnated on earth, in the form of the sensitive young heir to a decaying aristocratic house. He grows up, goes through many love affairs (heterosexual and otherwise), becomes a cultivated man — though he always balks at study — experiences loss, and finds redemption. Redemption aside, it is safe to say that we are already on the familiar ground of modernity. The young heir, Bao-yu, is a man who cannot remember who he is; a man who inhabits an age of decadence and disappointment, and finds himself, like the discarded stone he reincarnates, superfluous to the world.
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To introduce a discussion of the Hong Lou Men with a comparison to science fiction is, admittedly, a contrivance. The encounter with the soul staged by the latter is achieved through the invention of fantastic scenarios and technologies, whereas in the former it is simply a part of the author's real-world cosmology. Yet the underlying resonance is a real one, and one which may justify an additional discussion of a novel that, outside of the academy, is rarely written about in the West at all, and by surprisingly few writers (Rexroth and Borges being happy exceptions). What's worse, much of what has been written has been distressingly superficial, with undue focus on the cultural context in which the novel was written and received — like a college freshman who cannot move beyond how “Russian” Dostoievsky is. This trend is unfortunate, not only because it necessarily impoverishes one of the world's greatest novels, but because it reduces to a type a work that is within its own context exceptional.
Part of the problem of discussing the Hong Lou Men, of course, is that it is so vast that it is almost impossible to treat as a whole. There is, seemingly, no scenario that does not take place in its pages, and no subject that goes undiscussed by its characters: painting, tea, the art of landscaping, opera, cooking and eating, religion, the effects of history upon the individual, medicine and alchemy, bureaucracy, the position of women in society, calligraphy, kites, music, and, above all, poetry. And yet, with all of these subjects (and innumerable others), the approach taken is never that of exhaustion, but rather one of light exchanges where characters move rapidly from one observation to another, giving a sense of open-endedness, in which the conversations and ideas continue to ramify and expand within the reader's consciousness even after the narrative has moved on. This effect is also present in the rarer instances in which long disquisitions are made, and is all the more remarkable for the sense of lightness and fluidity that underlies it — which, perhaps, is the reason that the Hong Lou Men, despite its philosophical framework and concerns, is almost never spoken of as a novel of ideas. That it is also a novel of manners, a bildungsroman, a roman à thèse, and many other things besides, is a testament to its richness. It is, however, the intellectual aspect of the novel that puts it in starkest relief.
Often referred to as a work of realism, the Hong Lou Men is ultimately grounded within an allegorical framework that neatly does away with the traditional Western critiques of that genre. Innumerable artists have, by now, undertaken the work of realism on a vast scale, producing immense social tableaus, generation-spanning sagas, and total novels that they hoped could capture or reproduce the world. Cao Xueqin's goal was different. He wished to create a perfect image of the lost world of his youth, not so that he could preserve it, but in order to demonstrate its unreality. When the stone leaves the Land of Illusion to enter the real world, he passes through a gateway inscribed with the epigram, now famous:
Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.
In the end, it is the “real” world that is a dream, and the allegory that is true. One of the consequences of this is that, for Cao, the problem of literary realism can never be one of an imperfect simulation created by language or by the conventions of narrative, as the object of the simulation was illusory to begin with — an observation which, in the novel's final passages, is transformed into a moving defense of literature itself:
When grief for fiction's idle words
More real than human life appears,
Reflect that life itself's a dream
And do not mock the reader's tears.
The realism of the Hong Lou Men is, the authors claim, illusory — but so is life. It is, as Rexroth observed, a measure of the novel's humaneness that it is able to balance those claims with pathos. Given Cao's approach, the familiar critique of realism as a genre which is always rendered inadequate by its basis in literary convention falls flat — a point that might seem trivial, were it not an almost unquestioned tenet of postmodernism that problems of language, form, narrative, and genre are at once inherent and insoluble. Proof that these problems are ultimately subject to, and may be subverted by, the philosophical claims of the work itself is one of the great gifts that the Hong Lou Men offers to contemporary writers.
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The technique of the novel is also distinctive, and in sharp contrast to what we find in most works of similar stature. Though deeply moving in places, one is struck throughout by an avoidance both of narrative tension and, with the exception of a few of the poems, of rhetorical intensity. One does not find here the high dramatic gestures, the minute scrutiny of emotional states, or the existential dilemmas brought to a head that one finds in the great works of Western fiction. The novel's attitude toward life, rather, is conveyed by its structure: a seemingly endless chain of loosely connected episodes, formed almost without reference to the emotional intensity of their content. The narrative meanders — life's joys and tragedies flit by, and their impact is felt, not so much in the concentrated force of their moments, but in their gradual accumulation, which from time to time bursts in upon the reader, like a sudden rise in the level of the sea.
Poetry is a ubiquitous presence. Often a game, and a game bounded entirely by rules and conventions, it is simultaneously the medium for saying everything that cannot ordinarily be said. In one of the early chapters, Cao cites “a certain jesting poet” who lays bare the central tension of the novel:
Nü-wa's stone-smelting is a tale unfounded:
On such weak fancies our Great Fable's grounded.
Lost now, alack! And gone my heavenly stone —
Transformed to this vile bag of flesh and bone.
For, in misfortune, gold no longer gleams;
And bright jade, when fate frowns, lack-lustre seems.
Heaped charnel-bones none can identify
Were golden girls and boys in days gone by.
A lament for the lost world he is trying to recreate, the poem is also a recognition of the fact that, however illusory the world may be, it is, in the main, the only one we know — a point also underlined by the way in which Cao frames the novel's supernatural episodes, before the less subtle Gao E takes the helm. With just a few important exceptions, such as Bao-yu's having been born with a piece of jade in his mouth, the supernatural is always out of plain sight. It is encountered in dreams, and by those who are either dying or who become doomed as a result of their encounter with it (as in the remarkable case of Jia Rui), and who are therefore unable to provide evidence of it.
At one point, near the book's inception, Cao describes an episode that would seem to invite a supernatural conclusion: the young scholar, Jia Yu-cun, wandering aimlessly around the outskirts of Yangchow, comes across a ruined temple hidden among the trees and bamboo — a scenario that forms the basis of innumerable Chinese ghost stories. But above the temple gate a board reads: THE TEMPLE OF PERFECT KNOWLEDGE, while to either side, cracked uprights read: “As long as there is a sufficiency behind you, you press greedily forward,” and “It is only when there is no road in front of you that you think of turning back.” Reflecting on the inscriptions, Yu-cun thinks to himself: “The wording is commonplace to a degree, yet the sentiment is quite profound. In all the famous temples and monasteries I have visited, I cannot recollect having ever seen anything quite like it. I shouldn't be surprised to find that some story of spectacular downfall and dramatic conversion lay behind this inscription. It might be worth going in and inquiring.” But when he goes inside, all Yu-cun finds is “an ancient, wizened monk cooking some gruel who paid no attention whatsoever to his greetings and who proved, when Yu-cun went up to him and asked him a few questions, to be both deaf and partially blind. His toothless replies were all but unintelligible, and in any case bore no relation to the questions.” Yu-cun walks away in disgust.
Rather than the fox or ghost that the reader might have expected, the encounter at the ruined temple is one that features a Taoist saint — but a saint which Yu-cun cannot recognize, even as he cannot recognize that the “story of spectacular downfall and dramatic conversion” lying behind the inscription takes place not in past, but the future. It is an encounter typical of the Hong Lou Meng — until the novel reaches its conclusion, the supernatural world and its promise of transcendence appears repeatedly for the reader, but is always withheld from the characters themselves, who can only encounter it in death, or catch fleeting glimpses of it in their dreams. It is this careful partitioning of the material and spiritual realms that also sets in relief one of the most important differences between the Hong Lou Men and the science fiction stories that it resonates with: that the incredible technologies of the latter are almost always real and visible to those they affect. The world that the stone finds itself incarnated in, for all its distance from us in time and space, is paradoxically closer to our own lived experience. The novel's ultimate return to allegory, in which the protagonist's redemption is achieved through the operations of destiny, does away with this distinction, though not without satisfying the reader; in the end, the meeting-ground of truth and illusion proves to be literature itself.
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Naiyer Masud, The Essence of Camphor (1998) and Snake Catcher (2006)
Early in Naiyer Masud’s short story “Snake Catcher,” in an inventory of bric-a-brac recalled from an amnesiac’s childhood, there is a description of a metal lion: “It stood on its hind legs with its mouth wide open as though it were roaring. Its eyes were crafted from some precious stone and they had disappeared several generations before me. Yet the lion’s only importance lay in its missing eyes.”
The universe of Naiyer Masud’s stories is one of absences: of lost objects and lost memories, disappearing people and disappearing peoples. It is also, paradoxically, a universe overcrowded with the detritus of the past — an endless procession of objects, practices, and recollections whose presences are disquieting, not because they are expressions of a meaningless and disoriented present, but because they seem to possess a meaning of the most dire imminence, the revelation of which remains forever out of reach. In “Lamentation,” a man travels amongst wasteland tribes who are slowly going extinct, participating in funerary rites, and describing the ululations and intricate gestures he imitates, but never understands. In “The Essence of Camphor,” a perfume-maker explains that his secret is to build all of his perfumes on a basis of camphor — not it’s scent, but an essence that has evaporated to the point of becoming odorless, so that “attempting to smell it one feels a vacant forlornness and the next time round, breathing it in more deeply, one detects something in this forlornness.” In “Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire,” a man who believes a child once saw him in amorous embrace with his aunt describes how he came to look at houses:
“Now I could look at a house in the most cursory manner and yet discover passageways that were secret or wide open, in use or abandoned. I could tell whether voices rising from one part of the house could reach the other parts of the house. I’d examine each room very carefully to ascertain which parts of the room were visible from the crack between the door panels, or from the windows, or the skylights, and which parts could not be seen. In every room, I found an area which was not visible from the crack between the door panels nor from any window, nor from any skylight. In order to isolate this area, I would stand in the middle of the room and mentally paint the whole place black. Then, using only my eyes, I would spread white paint on all the parts visible from the cracks or windows. In this manner, the parts which remained black were found to be the truly invisible parts of the room. Apart from the rooms meant for children, I never found a single room in which the invisible part could not provide a hiding place for at least one man and one woman.
“Around this time, I began to concentrate on the shapes these invisible parts formed. They shaped the outlines of different images which, at times, had a truly amazing resemblance to certain objects. But I never found a complete picture of anything. Everything appeared incomplete or fragmented, even though I examined countless such ‘invisible’ parts. Some of these images had familiar shapes — of a lion, for instance, or a crab, or a pair of scales — but they were always unfinished. Other images resembled unknown objects and even though unfamiliar, still gave a sense of being incomplete. They left a strange effect on the mind which was impossible to articulate.”
The sense of unreality that permeates Masud’s writing — its “strange effect on the mind”— is all the more remarkable because it is achieved without the least resort to any of the usual mechanisms; one finds no magical realism here, no inexplicable occurrences, no fantastic metaphors or games with language. This unique style, which is not in keeping with English-language expectations of how non-European foreigners should write (that is, with a maximum of miracles and political commentary), may also explain why Naiyer Masud has had so little success in translation, even compared with other Urdu writers like Intizar Husain, Saadat Hasan Manto, or Qurratulain Hyder. The unevenness of his translators, of course, is also a factor, as is Masud’s failure to produce a work of significant length — though given the time it takes him to write his stories this is understandable: when interviewed by Memon, Masud noted that in the twenty-five years he had been writing he had produced only twenty two short stories. The other reason may have to do with the confusion, common amongst western readers, between relevance and influence, and the difficulty of ascertaining the extent of Masud’s impact — amongst Urdu readers he is read and enjoyed widely, yet he appears to be without any literary descendants.
The fact of the matter is that Naiyer Masud’s writing resembles no one’s, and goes nowhere. In what is perhaps a testament to the purity of his aesthetic vision, his stories may very well be as ephemeral as the objects and people that fill them: old curios and scraps of paper; crumbling houses and family emblems; dying tribes and lost relatives, and nostalgic amnesiacs, trying vainly to remember something before they disappear.
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Rafael Pérez Estrada, Devoured by the Moon (2004)
In an irony typical of our age, flash fiction acquired its name only after the art of producing it had been lost. Stevenson, Brecht, Kafka, Borges, Arreola: it suffices to name only a few of the genre’s former masters to remind us of all the others, and of the immense gulf that separates them from their more recent counterparts. Nowhere is this distinction more clear than in the two eras’ relationships with their antecedents. For nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth century writers, the “short short” was inseparable from the literary forms that had anticipated it — myths and fables, parables and historical anecdotes — the effect of which was not merely to situate their work within a context, but to allow even the briefest compositions to resonate far beyond the scope of their narrative. By contrast, the authors of contemporary flash fiction show no interest in archaic forms. Here the technique is that of the snapshot or the twist-ending, or of an ordinary narrative pared down to a minimum of words — giving more the impression of a “connect-the-dots” picture than of a story reduced to its essence. The short fiction of the late Rafael Pérez Estrada was a fortunate exception to this trend.
Born in Málaga in 1934, Pérez Estrada’s work has only recently begun to appear in English translation. While many of his short stories — such as the outstanding “The Tiny Model” or “The Minotaur,” — achieve their effects through the expansiveness of their allusions and their fable-like construction, Pérez Estrada’s most persistent technique is that of the inventory: a sequence of thematically related stories no more than a sentence or two in length, invariably featuring startling imagery. Individually, many of these stories are negligible, if amusing (“Pliny the Elder tells of a land populated by shadows without bodies.”) — yet when read in rapid succession, they produce a sense of exhilaration that, at Pérez Estrada’s best, is reminiscent of some of the great lists that in previous ages were so essential to literature: the catalogue of the ships; the games Gargantua played at school; the list of knights in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen; the lists of weapons and mirrors from the Xi You Bu of Dong Yue; Sei Shonagon’s list of things that quicken the heart; the contents of Prahasta’s chariot in the Ramayana; the list of standards from Orlando Furioso.
Pérez Estrada’s sentences are brief and often aphoristic, at times providing extravagant metaphors that remind one of the short poetry of Tagore (“Dawn came slowly, distant and nebulous, like a breath of cigar smoke wishing to become a cloud”) — but which are mercifully free of Tagore’s sentimentalism. His principal themes are mirrors, angels, cannibalism, and forbidden loves. Though certainly not distinctive in the context of twentieth century Spanish literature, he treats them distinctively.
Italo Calvino, in his Six Memos for the New Millennium, expressed a desire to compile an anthology of stories only a sentence in length, but regretted that he had never found any to equal that famous one by Augusto Monterroso: “Cuando despertó, el dinosauro todavía estaba allí.” (When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there). In Rafael Pérez Estrada’s Devoured by the Moon, one may find the requisite materials to fulfill that aspiration.
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Will Alexander, The Sri Lankan Loxodrome (2009)
In his short essay “My Interior Vita,” Will Alexander writes, “I was born under Leo, under its sign post of heat, and what has evolved from such colouration is a verbal momentum always magnetized to the uranic.” The uranic is a word that is perhaps singularly representative of Alexander’s hallucinatory style, in which a fascination for the astronomical and the scientific intersects with mythology. No poet’s subject matter is more diverse: in “Song in Barbarous Fumarole of the Japanese Crested Ibis” (The Stratospheric Canticles), he portrays an animal’s extinction from its own point of view, and in another poem from the same collection, he speaks in the voice of a remora describing its voyages attached to the sides of large fish; Asia and Haiti, which consists of two long poems, lays out the histories of Haiti and Tibet; in a poem from Above the Human Nerve Domain, Alexander discusses the use of Yoruban gods in poetry; another explores Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism, and in the poem immediately after, the mathematics of Georg Cantor. In the forty-page “The Stratospheric Canticles,” the subject of which is the act of painting and its relation to seeing, Alexander ranges from Alberti to the Persian painter Behzad of Herat, from tropical volcanoes to double star systems, from Galapagos Hawks to Sumatran Butterfly Fish, and from African kingdoms to pre-Socratic philosophers. The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, the title poem of which describes the adventures of a man named after a rhumb-line, represents the most recent leg of Alexander’s intellectual voyage.
Like The Stratospheric Canticles, The Sri Lankan Loxodrome begins with a series of short pieces (the best here are “The Bedouin Ark” and “A Nexus of Phantoms”), followed by a long poem. In the latter, Alexander uses a hunter of sea-snakes named Loxodrome to evoke the universe of the Indian Ocean (an ocean which, from Camoens to Muyaka bin Hajji, is almost conspicuous for the poetry it has inspired). The result is nearly seventy pages long — the longest poem Alexander has written to date — describing peoples and mythologies, geology and marine biology, constellations (Monoceros the Unicorn, Vulpecula, Microscopium, Ophiuchus the Serpent Holder), meteorology, and the art of navigation. The hunter, who is adrift between worlds, and who must wrestle with deadly reptiles in order to extract their venom, is also, of course, a symbol of the poet.
Throughout The Sri Lankan Loxodrome the author relies on his usual verbal techniques;
language itself is uranic in Alexander’s writing, and he strives for a diction as elevated and exotic as his subject matter — a diction propelled by the beauty of scientific words, and which recalls a passage from MacDiarmid’s The Kind of Poetry I Want: “Shirokogoroff’s Psychomental Complex of the Tungus; (If that line is not great poetry in itself then I don’t know what poetry is.)”
For Alexander, knowledge is an “alchemical operation, rather than an isolated expertise.” His principle technique is the generation of startling word combinations and metaphors, which, though frequently unintelligible, produce a sense of exalted strangeness unlike anything else in English. At times these constructions take the form of elaborate, nested metaphors that, in an odd way, resemble the extended kennings of skaldic poetry — except that, in the place of Snorri’s Edda, Alexander draws his tropes from the whole gamut of human sciences and cultures. More frequently, however, he seems to favor the invention of extravagant images, as in the opening of “The Optic Wraith”:
like a swarm of dense volcano spiders
woven from cold inferno spools
This technique varies considerably in effectiveness, though The Sri Lankan Loxodrome is mercifully free of the less felicitous formulations that would sometimes appear in his earlier work, like the “shredded mongoose vacuums” of his poem “Body as Vertiginous Lumen” — a line which reminds one of the famous Song dynasty poet Zhang Zhu, whose phrase “The Cataclysm of Red Sheep,” (or, more literally, the Red Sheep Disaster) has yet to be explained. The sometimes excessively lurid epithets found in his polemical poems, such as “Albania and the Death of Enver Hoxha” or “Haiti”, are also absent here. Unfortunately, though The Sri Lankan Loxodrome is relatively free of weak passages, it is not, however, one of Alexander’s strongest efforts, and never quite reaches the heights of The Stratospheric Canticles, or Exobiology as Goddess. Of course, with a poet like Alexander, this variation in quality is as trivial as it is inevitable, and to criticize him for it seems a little like censuring Cook or Ibn Battuta for the portions of their travels that one finds less interesting — line by line, poem by poem, his work astounds with the thrill of vicarious discovery.