Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cries in the Drizzle by Yu Hua

Cries in the Drizzle is the most recently translated work of Chinese writer Yu Hua. His previously translated titles include To Live (winner of Italy's Premio Grinzane Award in 1998) and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. He was awarded the James Joyce Foundation Award in 2002. To Live has sold over a half million copies in China and was also adapted into a movie by Zhang Yimou. While translations of these two books appeared in 2003, Cries in the Drizzle is a translation of the writer's earlier work, and is said to be less well known and perhaps less accomplished than the latter two. (My review is based upon the translation by Allan H. Barr. This is the first book of contemporary Chinese fiction that I have read, and so my review is based on my comparisons with classic and contemporary Indian and Western fiction.)

The novel is written in form of a narrative, unraveled in the voice of a child and a teenager growing up during the 1960s and 1970s. He is virtually ignored by his parents, and older and younger brothers, and is sent away at age six to spend five years with another family. He, Sun Guanglin, returns to his family when he is just at the threshold of adolescence, and the separation of five years distances him from the household even more. We peer into the lives of his father, grandfather, brothers and neighbors through his somewhat detached perspective. The novel works through a series of reminisces, and as we thread through memories, we find shards of information that we must pluck one by one and associate together to form a complete tale. One may call it a collection of stories in which time ebbs and flows, each "time" receding to leave more shells that the author picks and throws at us.

I have a distinct liking for novels which furnish a good story, and have a climactic ending. Coming of age novels like Of Human Bondage appeal as the reader learns from the experiences of the protagonist. Novels about adolescents seeing and understanding the world around them are made interesting by the use of this knowledge in some form at a later stage in life, such as in Great Expectations. At the opening of Cries, the novel promises much more than what it delivers in the final quarter of the story. The build-up raises an expectation about what Sun Guanglin would turn out as after a childhood wherein he is treated as a non-entity. Be it diversions into sexual or political references, somewhat Joyce-like at times, or the underplayed drama conveyed via a very contemporary style of writing, Yu Hua intermittently succeeds and fails in engaging my attention.

Perhaps just because I refuse to see it as a novel of growing up in the reign of Communist Mao, I find the allusions and metaphors of the story half-cooked. By a stretch of imagination, I can find an undercurrent in the story that shows "the changing dynamics of Chinese society under Communist rule" (quoting from the back cover). But to say so, I need to read too much into the life story of Yu Hua, for he grew up in such a society.

I think the mark of a great writer is to make his name inconsequential to his spoken or written word, and by that token, this book does not capture changes under communism even half as well as done famously and beautifully by Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago. Part of the problem definitely lies in the fact that I am reading too "less" into the translated word. I am sure many connotations, many references, many word combinations could strike precise metaphors and parallels with evolution of the protagonist in contemporary China. Doctor Zhivago is great even as a translation, and that is partially because Russian literature and values can be easily transcribed in English. I know translating Hindi poetry and novels -- with their rhetoric, different value system, different syntax of language and three to four thousand years worth of allusions — is a very hard enterprise. Hence most of the Eastern novels usually remain untranslated. So I value translations for what they can and do map into English, and, concerning the issue-at-hand, for what Cries has to say — with hopes that its familial themes don't get lost in translation.

For me, then, the complexity of father-son relationships that dominates the undercurrent of the book makes Cries in the Drizzle worth pursuing. Yu Hua work captures the vulgar and irregular life of Sun Guanglin's father, who represents a despicable stereotype. The trifle issues that keep men and women busy with petty arguments and the glamor that city life has for villagers surface in the quite accurate portrayal of rural societies. Furthermore, in the treatment of Gaunglin's grandfather by his father, the older generation has to survive in spite of the humiliation he must endure from his own son. In addition, Guanglin's childhood friend Guoqing faces abandonment from his own father, whereas another little boy, Lulu, has only Guanglin to look up to as brother or father figure.

The exchanges between these different father-son duos (and the book has maybe six or more such duos) are described through the eyes of the narrator or through a montage of events. The love-hate, respect-disrespect, fear-awe, anger-cordiality contradistinctions are all suggested — as detectable as a cry in the drizzle — and illustrated in a manner which is both heartrending — and fascinating for the reader.

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