Apart from a few notable exceptions (Tolstoy, Flaubert, Pamuk) my reading has been very strongly Anglo-American this year. When I was in Oslo, I was thrilled to find Words Without Borders: The World Through the Eyes of Writers – an anthology of short stories from writers around the globe who do not write in English. I read it on the beach near St Tropez in between throwing frisbees and building sandcastles. Though I tend to avoid short stories, I loved this and was grateful to be opened up to beautiful writing from other cultures translated into English for my reading pleasure.
Some of the stories spoke to me more than others. I enjoyed Ma Jian’s Where Are You Running To?, the tale of an older Chinese couple whose young son rebels against being forced to practise piano and literally runs out into the street. His mother, Chunyu, runs after him and tries, without success, to catch up. Her urgency becomes clear as the story unfolds: her chance to enter Beijing’s Academy of Music was snatched from her when she was denounced as a rightist and send to a labour camp for twenty-four years, and later snatched again when her daughter Xin, an even more talented pianist than her mother, died of bone cancer. She is grimly determined to catch the rebellious Kia and chases him through alleyways and streets, shouting imprecations to him while the rascal shouts back that he’d rather be studying computers. As she runs, Chunyu, model Chinese citizen, neighbourhood committee chairwoman, frustrated artist, bereft parent, enfuriated mother of one, “feels that she has caught up with herself”. She forgets her goal, and gives in to the sheer liberating joy of running, “and suddenly she feels that she’s flying, flying to a place not far from where she’s always wanted to be.” Then it is her son who wants to know where she’s running to.
I would dearly like to seek out more of Ma Jian’s books. Another writer who I’d like to read more of is South Korea’s Jo Kyung Ran – her story Looking for the Elephant was startlingly visual and surreal. I was very taken with the excerpt from Myriam Anissimov’s novel His Majesty, Almighty Death which describes a Jewish woman revisting the Swiss town where her family was incarcerated during the war and I’ll be looking for translations of her work.
My favourite story in the book was from Iranian writer Goli Taraghi. It is called The Unfinished Game, and she describes a flight from Paris to Teheran. While waiting in the queue, the protagonist half-recognises a woman she believes she may have known from school, someone whom she had worshipped for being “the most important student at school and the most perfect human being in the world”. As the flight progresses she becomes convinced that this “sad wreck” is indeed her former heroine. She recalls the schoolgirl’s champion swimming, her table tennis and her fencing. Eventually she plucks up the courage to approach the woman, who does remember her, and she hears that time has “punished my proud champion with terrible hardship”. They arrive at their destination, and go their separate ways.
It is a simple story, but inflected with insights into travel, how people behave in planes, the tricks that memory plays, a hollow victory over a nosy customs officer. My favourite paragraph was where she describes the process of getting off the plane. It rings with the humour that underpins the whole story. I love the way it starts out as a general description of the frustrating process of “disembarking” and becomes a specific and biting portrayal of a certain kind of business traveller:
Hurry. Shove. Push. The passengers get ahead of one another. Those who travel regularly know the tricks. They know when to run, when to stand, where to cut in and how, with all their bags and baggage, to get past the others at any cost. Getting onto the bus that has come to pick up the passengers has its own special technique. Whoever gets on last stands by the door and consequently gets off first, a hundred steps ahead of the others. Charging ahead, running, panting he arrives at the police booth and passport control. Having passed these first two obstacles, he runs up the stairs two steps at a time – panting – victorious – and grabs his luggage. This “just me”, insofar as a powerful force runs in his veins and all his intelligence and wits have been concentrated on reaching the goal, is first in line at customs. He’s in a hurry. He closes his suitcase. Happy and successful, he gets into the first taxi and goes straight to his house. He goes to sleep early and wakes at the crack of dawn. He gets to work sooner than the rest of his colleagues, rises in the ranks, gets promoted. He is a winner. He takes first prize in the race of life and death. He retires sooner than So-and-So and So-and-So and So-and-So. His night turns to morning more quickly, his weeks to months, his months to years, and his years to the end of the century. He leaps from that last step of life and stands first in the line at the gates of heaven, long before the others he left behind, shuffling in line at customs.
In his introduction to the book, Andre Dubus III says that instead of propping up insidious ethnic stereotypes, this collection of stories shatters them. I enjoyed being reminded just how univeral our human experience is, how we all parent children, have sad memories, go on plane flights, feel despair, travel to new countries, make friendships. Maybe we don’t all live through civil wars or have polygamous marriages but other humans do, and we can still relate to them, as humans.