The Surrealism of the Real7 min read

Eleanor Goodman reviews The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua

As readers will find in his massive novel Brothers and clever essay collection China in Ten Words, acclaimed Chinese writer Yu Hua has a highly developed sense of the absurd. This is perhaps both a defense mechanism and a literary advantage when living in a country in which the inconceivable has been made real. Yu Hua’s latest collection to come out in English, The April 3rd Incident, presents stories written between 1987 and 1991, yet the sense of foreboding, fear and repression is just as topical today as it was then.

The seven stories in this collection are not linked by plot or character, but they hang together tightly in terms of tone and theme. Throughout, there is death, paranoia, disorientation, ominous knocking, and a confusion between ‘dream’ and ‘reality’ embedded in a world that never seems entirely real. An alienation from one’s own sensations and perceptions, while still being utterly subsumed in them, is a thread that stretches between the stories. Characters recall dreams that seem to become manifest in the world; a truck driver sees the shadow of a boy he accidentally killed in his own son; a man is uncertain that the woman he has fallen in love with really exists. Nothing is ever what it appears to be.

In the first story of the collection, ‘As the North Wind Howled,’ a character named Yu Hua is woken by a stranger who forces into his home to inform him that his friend is dying. Yu Hua (the character) insists that he has no friends, and does not recognize either the stranger or the name of this supposed friend. Despite his protestations, Yu Hua is prodded out into the cold to attend the funeral. Once there, “I glimpsed a pale face that gave little indication of age, a face I had never seen before. I put the shroud back and thought, So that’s my friend.” This resigned acceptance of a relationship that is not felt, but rather created and enforced by social morays and the implicit threat of reprisal for dissent, speaks to the social and political environment in which Yu Hua (the author) was raised.

Born on April 3, 1960, Yu Hua lived through the Cultural Revolution, its aftermath, and its revision in official histories. Social relationships during the Cultural Revolution were deliberately upended: children were encouraged to inform on their own parents, students were upheld as more knowledgeable than teachers, and marriages were often determined by work units. In that context, being told that you are the friend of a dead man – and are therefore responsible for his elderly mother and for sweeping his grave – is not that much of a stretch.

The title of the book is, like all its stories, playful, eerie and dark all at once. April 3 may be Yu Hua’s birthday, but the word ‘incident’ following a date will bring to many minds the “June Fourth incident”, otherwise known as the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Yu Hua vividly describes his experience during that time in China in Ten Words. Stuck in nearby Shijiazhuang waiting out the political storm, he watches the news until:

Suddenly one day the picture on my TV screen changed completely. Gone were the shots of detained suspects, and gone was the jubilant commentary. … A day earlier the announcer had been passionately denouncing the crimes of the captured students, and now he was cheerfully lauding our nation’s thriving progress. From that day on, just as Zhao Ziyang disappeared from view, so too Tiananmen vanished from the Chinese media. I never saw the slightest mention of it afterward, as though it had never happened. 

In his interesting and lamentably short introduction, Yu Hua’s longtime translator Allan Barr mentions Kafka, Faulkner, Borges and Robbe-Grillet as literary influences for Yu, which is stylistically evident in the stories. But the personal experience of watching history happen and then be erased seems to be a driver of these tales of twisted time and unrelenting paranoia. When what is simply known to be true from firsthand experience is denied by others (either from maliciousness, expediency or genuine ignorance), one product, inevitably, is fear.

The personal experience of watching history happen and then be erased seems to be a driver of these tales of twisted time and unrelenting paranoia”

In the most ambitious story in the collection, ‘In Memory of Miss Willow Yang,’ fear  and disorientation are two of the predominant emotions at play. Structurally, Yu Hua plays with a kind of Rashomon effect, telling overlapping stories from several different angles. There are numbered sections, but the sequence repeats, suggesting an endless loop. Definite dates appear over and over again, but are reinterpreted in contradictory ways. Characters tell stories about what happened to them that directly conflict. One character called ‘the outlander’ receives a corneal transplant from a girl who dies in a car crash in Shanghai. That girl becomes the wife of the narrator, who may or may not be ‘the outlander’ from ten years before. But the father of the girl insists that she never went to Shanghai before she died at home in her own bedroom. Barr’s choice to translate 外乡人 as ‘outlander’ instead of the more straightforward ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ adds to the atmospheric eeriness. By the end – like actual events in the history of China – the specifics of what happened and didn’t happen, who was involved and who wasn’t, how people died and why, are obscured. This is more than just play with literary form, or commentary on our postmodern condition; it is, to this reader, trenchant political critique.

In addition to his skill in playing with time, structure and repeated tropes, Yu Hua also excels at physical descriptions of discomfort. In ‘Summer Typhoon,’ people are forced from their homes to wait out aftershocks from an earthquake. The weather is wet, hot, and intolerable:

A swarm of mosquitoes flew over, humming away. They landed on his chest and then flew off again. The mat underneath him channeled damp air toward his face. The rotten smell is warm, the furry smell that develops after rice goes bad, different from the odor of rotting fruit or putrid meat. When rice goes bad it turns a color between blue and yellow. I want to go back home. My limbs can’t move and my eyes won’t open. I want to go home.

One can feel the human misery in every sentence. Similarly, the truck driver who kills a little boy eventually also hits a girl when he is overcome with car sickness on a bumpy road:

A sour drool dribbled from the corners of my mouth and slithered down my chin, onto my neck and chest, and then down to my midriff, where all those cramps were going on. The stuff was cold and sticky and I wanted to rub it off with my hand, but I didn’t have the strength to do even that.

Barr’s rhythm and diction is excellent, fully rendering the rush of unpleasant sensations as described in the Chinese. Yu Hua clearly revels in such physical details, as he did with all of his painfully vivid scatological descriptions in Brothers. What these stories lack, however, is insight into the psyche of characters aside from the exclusively male protagonists – and particularly the psyche of rare female characters. None of these tales are told from the point of view of a woman, which is of course a writer’s prerogative. But the female characters who do appear tend to be flat: distant portraits of mothers, girlfriends, seductive figures, unhappy wives. There is scant attempt to explore their internal lives: a noticeable failing in an otherwise absorbing and ambitious collection. ∎

Yu Hua, The April 3rd Incident, trans. Allan H. Barr (Pantheon Books, Nov 2018).