Writing (and translating) the surreal, part two: the stories of Sun Yisheng – by Nicky Harman

Today’s piece is by Nicky Harman of Paper Republic:

Surrealist fiction, as exemplified by Franz Kafka and his Kafkaesque absurdities, feels like a very western phenomenon. But it is also a kind of story-telling that some excellent Chinese writers have taken to and given a style and a twist all of their own. Yesterday, I looked at the stories of Dorothy Tse, from Hong Kong. In my second blog on surreal story-tellers in China, I’m writing about Sun Yisheng, one of a small number of independent-minded young authors who have experimented with new styles and stories far removed from the literary realism pervasive in mainland China.

Dad Your Name is Field-Keeper, by Sun Yisheng, tr Nicky Haman (Read Paper Republic, 4 Feb 2017) [image: Wang Yuanqi]

Part 2: Sun Yisheng

Sun Yisheng

Born 1986 in Shandong province, Sun Yisheng graduated in chemistry and then took a miscellany of unskilled jobs while he taught himself to write fiction. Finding himself ignored by the literary mainstream, in 2012 he sent his first story on spec to Ou Ning, who spotted his talent and immediately published it in his ground-breaking literary magazine, Chutzpah (《天南》). Since then, Sun has had other work published in respected Chinese litmags, and six of his stories have been translated by Dave Haysom and myself.

Though Sun is not a crime writer per se, crimes are leitmotifs in many of his stories, and the first story I translated, ‘Shades that Periscope through Flowers to the Sky’, was chosen by Susan Harris, of Words without Borders, for her non-Scandi crime issue. In ‘Shades’, young Rocky Wang is a loner who routinely steals, robs and even, on one occasion, kills his victims. Retribution eventually comes in the shape of a corrupt police officer determined to make him confess; he does so with a sort of weary resignation—only to find that he has confessed to the wrong crime. Sun’s stories usually have elements of violence but they are not gratuitous or salacious; indeed, there is a grim morality in some of the denouements. Susan Harris was interviewed for an article about Sun in China Daily, ‘Author finds clues to real life in his whodunit fiction’, and described herself as ‘hooked by the gradual build-up of suspense and twist at the end’.

While Sun has a nice ear for dialogue, and his human characters are convincing, the real hero of his stories is often the landscape, rural and urban, and its forces, seen and unseen; here his descriptions are vivid and the details convincing –– as you would expect from someone raised in rural Shandong. This is from ‘The Stone Ox that Grazed’:

Stone Horse River was in spate. On Stone Horse Bridge, splash after splash of its waters broke through the gaps between the flagstones. Blogs crossed the bridge. He was running fast into the teeth of the wind, and the wind pressed down on his jacket and trousers as if it were a bridegroom.

There is an intensely visual quality about Sun’s writing. One might describe it as painterly but, if so, it is a very particular kind of painting. Sun himself says about another story, ‘Dad Your Name is Field-Keeper’: ‘[It] is an assemblage of disconnected images, in a landscape that flows like an inkwash painting.’ Personally, I find I am often reminded of something rather different and less traditionally Chinese: his characters and their relationship to the landscape suggest the stick-like figures in an L.S. Lowry painting.

Sun’s writing style is adventurous. He employs classical story-telling traditions and language, juxtaposed with slangy, contemporary dialogue, and that’s not all. He once commented to me in an email: ‘The rhythm of the language is very important to me, and I have made the cadence and the imagery as close as I can to poetry.’ His settings all feel Chinese but he is well-read in, and influenced by, world literature. He recently contributed a piece, translated by Dave Haysom, to the UK’s Granta magazine, Best Book of 1926: Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel. The title of ‘Shades’ is taken from the poem ‘When once the twilight locks no longer’ by Dylan Thomas, translated into Chinese by the well-known poet Bai Hua.

Dragon-fields (Sun Yisheng’s first collection of short stories)

Perhaps because he does not easily fit into the Chinese literary mainstream, it was not until 2016 that his debut collection of short stories, Dragon-fields, (in Chinese, Ni Jia You Long Duoshao Hui?《你家有龙多少回》) was published by Bai Hua Wen Yi Publishers in China, years after several stories from the collection were translated into English.

Dragon-fields as a whole has not yet been translated into English but interested readers can browse the following complete stories, available free-to-view in online literary magazines.


1. ‘The Stone Ox that Grazed’, translated by Nicky Harman (Asymptote, 2014)

The villagers of Stone Horse Pasture are plagued by a stone ox whose statue, on the other side of the river, comes alive at night and devours their crops. The mysterious thief, and heavy snow, makes life unbearable for villagers already ground down by poverty, and tensions flare when a precious (live) ox goes missing. Blogs, Mrs. Blogs and their son Brat, all go out separately at dead of night in a fruitless attempt to catch the stone ox. Finally, just as they face starvation, Mrs. Blogs mysteriously obtains meat to cook, possibly Brat whom she may have killed. Blogs befriends an old woman who gives him food but he takes advantage of her kindness and robs her of all she has left, a single rice grain. He gets his comeuppance the following summer when the rice grain germinates and multiplies, and the seedlings leak water, and more water, until finally the entire village drowns.

2. ‘Apery’, translated by Nicky Harman (Pathlight, 2015)
The narrator’s father captures an ape in the nearby mountains and obsessively (and fruitlessly) tries to teach it to talk and write. Eventually the ape gets tired of the relentless lessons and escapes. The father’s health suffers a mysterious decline, until finally he takes refuge in the ape’s cage, losing all powers of speech and growing more ape-like by the day. The ape is never seen again, at least not in its simian body, but there are hints that the narrator may have undergone a metamorphosis and may actually be the ape in human form. There is a delightful linguistic teaser in the denouement which, unusually (and luckily), translates quite well into English.

3. ‘The shades who periscope through flowers to the sky’, translated by Nicky Harman (Words without Borders, 2012)
Rocky Wang, a social misfit, roams a bleak, post-apocalyptic cityscape where discontent bubbles beneath the surface. He breaks up with his married girlfriend, befriends a waif, tries to stop his parents quarrelling furiously, commits petty thefts, and then, almost accidentally, murders a couple. In police hands, he is at first sullen, then finally cooperates, only to find he has confessed to the ‘wrong’ killing. ‘Shades’ differs from a classic Western-style crime story: after the ‘reveal’, there is a further episode: through the bars of his prison window, Rocky sees a dramatic solar eclipse, and the bystanders watching outside are compared to the rebels in the film *V for Vendetta*.

4. ‘Dad Your Name is Field-keeper’, translated by Nicky Harman. THIS STORY IS PUBLISHED COMPLETE FOR THE FIRST TIME ON PAPER REPUBLIC, FEBRUARY 2017
The narrator leaves home after the death of his mother, to search for his father who vanished some years before. As his journey continues, the reader is drawn into a desolate, nightmarish landscape, its harshness underlined by the weather which swings from wet and cold, icy and snowy to scalding hot and dry. He meets soulless people, some hostile or violent, some frightened, none particularly friendly, with whom he exchanges remarks. These conversations are often inconsequential but one question recurs over and over: ‘Do you know a man called Field-keeper?’ It appears that he does not find his father, but the journey becomes an end in itself, and the urgency of the search fades as the narrator claims that the Field-keeper is his son not his father, and the ox cart driver also claims his name is Field-keeper. Sun explains the story like this: ‘The narrator’s many questions can be reduced to two: Where have I come from? and Where am I going to? All the characters, the crowd and the narrator, are faceless, so that the reader can see them as anyone, including themselves. I chose the name Field-keeper, not only because it is a typical countryman’s name, but because it has a good sound and rhythm to it.’

5. ‘Flame’, translated by Dave Haysom, 2015 
Describes a quixotic flight on the back of an ox from a dying village. The narrator has been told to seek out the eponymous flame, and arrives at an open grave, where a ghostly voice delivers a doom-laden message by telephone: ‘“Our enemies are pursuing us, we are being pursued by the light, we can’t move, our village is panicking, our food rations have run out, our end is approaching, our end has arrived, we can’t leave, we can’t survive, we’ve been abandoned, we can’t turn back to the way things were in ancient times.” Having finished speaking they suddenly hang up.’ Amid the doom and gloom, there is sly humour as the ox has the last word: ‘… unhurried but unhesitating, [it] comes towards me, bowing its head to sniff at my face. [Its eyes] fix on me, and before I can close my eyes, staring at me fiercely the ox says: “now tell me – do I exist, or not?’

[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic Collaboration, Feb 2017]

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