Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Cat's Perspective: A Tabby-cat's Tale by Han Dong

Frisch & Company offers a variety of international literary works translated creatively into contemporary English language. Readers get a good introduction to the works of writers from European and Asian cultures that have limited circulation in the United States. The short stories and novellas published in eBook format are interesting and carefully selected to be informative and entertaining to U. S. readers. It is important in the 21st Century to understand the world view of artists from countries around the world.

A Tabby-cat’s Tale by Han Dong (translated from Chinese with care by Nicky Harman) gives us a glimpse of the current structure of Chinese culture. The novel takes place in a Nanjing multi-story apartment building. A family consisting of a mother, her two sons, and daughter-in-law live in a limited space but are harmonious in their interactions. The family has enough income to live comfortably given the circumstances of life at the edge of a modern Chinese city.

When a beautiful little kitten is brought into the home by the sister-in-law, all remains peaceful and the cat adds color to the family experience in the apartment. Cousin Coco, a child who lives downstairs, importunes Tabby’s family to let him take the cat to his family’s apartment for a few hours. Granted permission, the cat is taken and returned. Tabby is a different cat when he returns, reclusive, unloving, careless in urinating and defecating, and failing to groom himself. The family is mortified by the filth and odor created by the now ugly cat, but they are powerless to control him. The reader begins to see that this is truly “Tabby’s Tale” and that the cat uses his main character, the second son, to communicate his feline existential condition. The human narrator is a na├»ve but reliable observer of the cat’s behavior that reveals the complex inner state of the once beautiful cat.

The tale becomes tragic due to continued mal-appropriate behavior of the tabby cat when stressful events occur in its life related to legal mandates. For example, the cat is prohibited from living on the roof. Tabby is heroic in his effort to endure hardships complicated by his own self -defeating actions. The actions are the result of his “disappearance” and failure to adjust to the regimented and restricted lives of his human characters. The reader gets caught up in the narrative created by Tabby and hopes for redemption in the form of cat’s ability to love himself and his human family. Is Tabby successful in recovering from his victimization during Coco’s “cultural revolution” and learning to adjust to maintain personal freedom in a restricted social environment? It is indeed an interesting tale.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Social Evolution: Shifu, You'll Do Anything For A Laugh short stories by Mo Yan

Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012. The Chinese writer discusses his writing in the Preface of a collection of 8 short stories in Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. The writer grew up poor in a rural area of China and was pulled out of school to help his family with their farming work. Mo Yan was lonely and developed a habit of telling stories about his observations of his sparsely populated environment. His incessant story telling caused his mother to ask him, if he ever stopped talking. This question produced a nick name, Mo Yan that means don’t speak. During his farm work, he met a writer toiling in the fields as punishment for being a right wing agitator. Mo Yan liked the descriptions of the writer related to writing stories and being able to afford three meals a day.

In this collection of short stories, the title story "Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh" is a tale of downsizing of old factory jobs to make way for new workers in a business booming China. It also describes social hardships resulting from dramatic economic change.

"Man and Beast" is a story of redemption and forgiveness on an isolated mountain on the island of Hokkaido.

"Soaring" is a fable of perceived beauty and ugliness and societal forces that lead to tragedy and deliverance.

"Iron Child" is a fable of persecution and resilience but final acceptance of inescapable human descruction.

"The Cure" illustrates the ultimate solution to societal problems that seems to haunt all totalitarian political systems. The ultimate degradation of the human spirit turns the solution into an identification with the aggressor.

"Love Story" is a tale of young love in the failed utopia of the Cultural Revolution in the middle decades of the 20th Century in China. In spite of the political insanity, human beings continue to procreate and evolve beyond temporary “absolute truths.”

"Shen Garden" explores the meaningless life of a “successful” man who turns his back on the one love relationship that could have resulted in ego integrity rather than despair.

Finally, "Abandoned Child" is the story of a common occurrence in a country where the government mandates social engineering justified by the idea that family planning will curb natural evolution and produce a Utopian society.

Mo Yan’s handpicked set of 8 stories was first published in 2001 then re-released in 2011. He set the context in his Preface by writing that, “Looking back some forty years, to the early 1960s, I revisit one of modern China’s most bizarre periods, an era of unprecedented fanaticism.” China was burdened by “economic stagnation and individual deprivation.”

Mo Yan’s stories reflect his development as a writer starting in the 1980s “when China opened its door to the outside world, that we finally began to face reality, as if waking from a dream.” In this volume of short stories, the reader can see in part why Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mind Contours: Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon's epic novel,  Against the Day,  is an odyssey in four dimensions, and more. The reader is introduced to this imaginary space during the first pages of chapter one. The boys' group, 'Chums of Chance,' discuss the altitude of their dirigible with the conclusion that if they keep going up into the lighted sky, they'll be going down. How can rising become falling? All of the key characters in the tale ask themselves similar questions.

The reader realizes early on that the reading time of  Against the Day will be different from other novels, longer and shorter. In the novel, the path of light is followed as it travels through the pages at a constant velocity. Yet it is always changing over time, illuminating evolving territories and imaginary borders, and shining on the people who are both grounded and accepting of fantasy. The reader's view of history and individual destiny is guided by Pynchon's description of a time-territory-personality matrix.

Major themes emerge from this imaginary time-space. One of them describes the human genius and folly as seen in the historical record. Pynchon shows the reader that ideas begin as fantasy. Mathematicians translate these fantasies into arbitrary symbols using an arcane logical system. Scientists use the symbols in their experiments attempting to ground them in quotidian reality. Leaders of commerce take the realized ideas and create marketable products. Politicians corner the markets and carve up the land for power and defense.

The novel describes paths for the secondary characters parallel to the historical record, but different. Unlike history, the lives of many of the background characters do not flow continuously. Some stay as children in the world of fantasy. Some get bound up in symbols and never find the ground. Some characters are caught up in science without anticipating the applications that will be made of their discoveries. Other characters spend their lives in commerce fighting for wages or using tactics to maintain the dominance of wealth. The politicians look at the earth in terms of artificial geographic borders, defending their domains while encroaching on the property of others.

The primary characters are anarchists of fantasy, mathematics, science, commerce, and politics. They challenge the frontiers in each of these dimensions. The reader comes to an understanding of the driving force and goal of anarchy through the conscious and unconscious choices the characters make. Readers then have choices. Do we stay as children in fantasy, or do we take on adult responsibility? Are we satisfied with a symbolic description of the world or do we live in it? Can we make a living by the economic rules but also free ourselves from materialism? Do we ascend to political power or resist borders that require defense and foster encroachment? Is there a Shambhala, a vanishing point on this earth where we can approach perfect, boundless, infinite, multi-dimensional peace?

Take your own personal odyssey as you read Against the Day. Experience the fantasy but go beyond it. Do the math but learn to apply limits. Explore science but prevent its use in evil applications. See how to earn a living but avoid the traps of being owned by your possessions. Become aware of political power and fight against the immoral if necessary. And above all, when down becomes up, explore the frontiers of your life looking for your dimensions.