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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #36 (September 6, 2005), page 15.
Smug and somewhat lost
By Chun Sue
Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
Riverhead Books, 2004
Paperback, 223 pages, $14.00
By Josephine Bridges
Chun Sue’s debut novel made quite an impression in her native China when it was published in 2002; during the first two weeks following its publication, it sold 100,000 copies. The novel, drawn in part from diaries the author kept during her teens, was also banned in China, according to comments on the back cover of the English edition, "for its candid exploration of a young girl’s sexual awakening."
I searched for sexually offensive passages. I found some four-letter words, but they weren’t used in that context. Chun Sue writes about sex in a matter-of-fact, if puzzled, way. "We lay down on the bed and started kissing. None of it seemed quite real." Later on the narrator says, "We were never able to control our passions or desires," but goes on to talk about the sky and getting a drink of water. A fellow whose company she is enjoying tells her that "if we had sex it would be impossible to be ordinary friends afterward." When another young man says, "‘I want to have sex with you,’" the narrator confides, "I never expected him to be that blunt." You can’t get much less lurid and titillating than this.
Chun Sue writes about school with considerably more emotion than she writes about sex. In a list called "Some simple introductions and some loves" that precedes the narrative, she calls West X High "[a] disgusting school that had one rule: obedience, yes; explanations, no."
Plenty of teenagers have parent trouble, and the narrator of Beijing Doll is no exception. "Everything around me was thoroughly disgusting, useless, and the two people who had brought me into this world would never dream that they were the primary source of my suffering." At the same time, she is able to empathize with the disappointment she believes her mother feels in her: "Maybe she was thinking about how kids from other families came to school filled with energy and a positive attitude, while hers had turned out like me."
And where would teenagers be without their friends? Chun Sue’s description of Ziyu is a high, if quirky, compliment: "He always said okay, no matter what I asked. That included unreasonable requests. Like I said, he was a good friend."
A solid sense of place informs Chun Sue’s observations. Walking with the lead singer of a band whom she has just met — "his voice matched him perfectly, travel-weary and worn-looking, as if he’d just returned from Xinjiang Province" — the narrator notes that the river "looked like an unripe lemon that had already turned rotten. Like me."
The author’s droll sense of humor mitigates her generally gloomy outlook and transforms Beijing Doll into a comical book when you least expect it. "I wanted to satisfy all his demands on me —," she writes, "— if he had any, that is." She’s also got a knack for nailing down the oddest of mixed feelings. She describes emerging onto the street from the subway, "feeling smug and somewhat lost at the same time." And she knows exactly what to do with her anger and resentment — write hard: "With his bourgeois mentality and proletarian identity, this heartless self-styled artiste never did anything worthwhile except eat and wait for the sun to set. How did he have the guts to go on living?"
Best of all, when the world-weary narrator muses on her childhood, it’s just as sad as it is funny. "I really truly wished I could go back in time. I was about to turn seventeen, getting on in years, and all my passion gone. I thought back fondly to when I was twelve, when I was eleven, when I was just a kid."
Howard Goldblatt’s translation feels perfect, absolutely transparent. Nothing stands between the tough and vulnerable narrator and the reader to whom she entrusts everything she has to give.