Love In The New Millennium by Can Xue (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

Reading Love In the New Millenium is like dreaming a bad dream: disjointed things are happening on every page, with no clear significance or meaning (to me).

“Do you understand everything now?” she asked.

Wei Bo did not understand at all. What sort of woman was A Si’s mother? Why had Long Sixiang wanted him to come here? His sole impression was that the old woman had a cruel temper.

“No, Sixiang, I don’t understand.”

“Good!” Ling Sixiang clapped her hands. ” Your not understanding is understanding!”

These are the kind of nonsensical sentences that fill the pages at the beginning of this book.

“People come and go so quickly here!” said Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. And they do in Can Xue’s world, too. We don’t really know Wei Bo, except that he is forty-eight and works in a soap factory. We don’t really know any of the women who are a part of his life: Niu Cuilan or A Si (his lovers); nor Xiao Yuan, his wife. We discover that Cuilan and A Si worked in the cotton mill, and then gained employment in the health spa as prostitutes; the later life-style seems easier than the former. There are also Long Sixiang and Jin Zhu, the Gold Pearl. They have left working in the cotton mill as well, to become prostitutes though they are old and had a hard time getting started in the business. These women come and go from Wei Bo’s life with relative ease.

Many things go in and out of Wei Bo’s life. I don’t know what to make of paragraphs like this one, involving an elderly woman who has sung La Traviata for forty years, and walks with Wei Bo after the performance.

“Where do you live?” (He asks her.)

“Over on that side, in the fifteen-story building. It’s been lovely to take a walk with you.

The actress walked in the direction of the tall building. A gust of wind lifted her black skirt, and Wei Bo saw her fly upward like a great bird, both feet leaving the ground. She alighted at the entrance to the building. The door opened itself, she all but flapped through it, then the door shut. The large black door with its pair of copper ring handles made a mournful impression. Before long her aria emerged through an upstairs window, although Wei Bo could not understand a word…” (p. 74)

Wei Bo could not understand a word? Neither, sadly, could I.

Most of this novel was incomprehensible to me, and it frustrated me as I read. But, I could not put it down. It called me to continue, to wander down the path that Can Xue created so that I could see what might lie ahead. Or, under a leaf. Or, in the fifth room of a cave dwelling. The occurrances in this novel are bizarre, to be sure, but the imagery is quite astonishing. Like the vivid cover on the front, there is a richness in design and color which mimics the writing inside. It is like nothing I have ever read before. I don’t know what to make of it. But, I think I like it.

Her songs aren’t about our past life, or about the emotional life of people today, but instead about the life we have never even imagined.

(Thanks to Yale University Press for a copy of this book to review.)

Find a most excellent review of this novel here.

9 thoughts on “Love In The New Millennium by Can Xue (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

  1. Maybe that is the point. Love is difficult to know or understand,especially these days..
    Even if one thinks one knows, does one really?
    Perhaps the thought that one knows about love is a sure sign that one knows nothing about it.

    Personally, I think that Wei Bo would have done better to leave school during his teenage years and work in a wig factory. That might have helped. Soap doesn’t really teach you that much about life.

    But it does keep one clean.

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  2. Please don’t feel foolish.
    Some things just don’t translate well, either culturally or literarily.
    This must be one of them.
    Which asks the question, Why is this up for a literary prize? For translation,even?
    Does someone know someone else on the nominating committee?

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  3. Those are good questions, Abby. I am eagerly anticipating the revelation of the short list which will be streamed live from the Man Booker Facebook page live at 1:00 Chicago time. Perhaps this will shed some light on the book choice/agenda of the judges.

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  4. Did I read that blurb right? She goes flying through the air? I cannot stand magical realism at all. Is that what this is or is it just all over the place?

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    • My advice is to read the review by the Chinese English translator I linked to. She was able to find meaning where I could not. Apparently the judges felt there was no place for this on the short list, as it was too ambiguous. I am used to vague Asian writing, but this was altogether obtuse!

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