By Chen Ran
Tr. by John Howard-Gibbon
Reviewed by Larissa N. Heinrich
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2005)
Chen Ran’s novel A Private Life (Siren shenghuo) chronicles from the inside the coming-of-age of a young woman, Ni Niuniu, living in a Chinese metropolis in a time of great change. Narrated retrospectively, the novel follows Ni Niuniu’s emotional and sexual development from the age of about eleven to the age of thirty. Structurally, the book is less episodic than diary-like, intimate: it begins with a window into Niuniu’s childhood and family life and her earliest relationships with a woman neighbor and a school-teacher, eventually progressing to describe her romance with a young poet, her various traumatic losses, her time in a mental institution, and her subsequent “recovery,” all against the backdrop of life in Beijing in the decades of the Cultural Revolution and the Tian’anmen Square incident. Although the novel’s frank depiction of female sexuality and youthful urban individuality may invite comparisons with other novels by Chinese women writers in recent years, Chen Ran’s A Private Life—first published in Chinese in 1996, well before these more commercial novels—stands apart as a work of rare literary sensitivity and depth.
Born in 1962, Chen Ran has published numerous short stories and won a number of literary prizes in China, including the first “Contemporary China Female Creative Writer’s Award.” As translator John Howard-Gibbon remarks in the brief preface to A Private Life, however, Chen “has been a kind of disturbance on the perimeter of mainstream Chinese literature, a unique and important female voice.” Earning critical acclaim in the 1980s for her “avant-garde” fiction, he continues, Chen’s work in recent years has been “leaning more and more toward the psychological and philosophical as she explores loneliness, sexual love, and human life.” A Private Life, while Chen’s first novel-length work, continues very much in this vein, playing with the contrast between “lived” and “dream” realities while offering a finely-tuned narrative grounded in the unmistakable realities of China’s recent economic and political history. The translation is unfailingly accurate and succeeds in conveying the rhythm and tone of the original.
The novel is stylistically diverse, even to the point of fragmentation. Most chapters open with long impressionistic epigraphs, which are included in full in the book’s list of chapters. The book is narrated primarily in the first person, with the notable exception of the description of Ni Niuniu’s first experience of heterosexual intercourse, which is narrated in the third person. The book also makes an almost poetic use of anthropomorphism, turning inanimate objects — Ni Niuniu’s bathtub, the shrubs on her balcony, her mother’s clothes — into “characters” capable of conversing with the protagonist in a way reminiscent of a similar device employed in Wong Kar-wai’s now-classic film Chungking Express. As in Wong’s film, this device succeeds as a form of character description by conveying both a charming intimacy and a compelling loneliness, a sense of being on the outside looking in. The novel also includes two illustrations — presented as images either produced or interpreted by Ni Niuniu herself — inserted into the text. Not unlike Lu Xun’s seminal short story from the Republican period, it employs the discourse of medical diagnosis, framed by diary entries, to foreground themes of madness and recovery that tend to invite socially critical analysis. Unlike “Diary of a Madman,” however, Chen seems less interested in using this format (or the inserted images) to convey an explicit social critique or “authenticate” the text, than in deepening our picture of Ni Niuniu’s complex psyche and her connection to the past; the social critique is left implicit. As the narrator herself remarks, “My attention to the accurate depiction of the fragmented memories of past events is not motivated by a passion for personal reminiscing, nor am I fanatically nostalgic. The reason my focus persistently returns to the bits and pieces of the past is that they are not dead pages from history; they are living links that connect me to my ever-unfolding present.” Or as Ni Niuniu states more succinctly elsewhere: “I am a fragment in a fragmented age.”
Thematically, A Private Life does resonate with other works by contemporary Chinese women writers. As in the short story “Searching for the Lost Wings of the Angel” by the Taiwanese lesbian author Chen Xue, for example, the Freudian psychoanalytic overtones to the novel’s homoeroticism and sensuality are overt; and as with Mian Mian’s novel Candy, readers will find traces here of decadence, self-indulgence, and urban ennui. Like these works, furthermore, A Private Life exploits the autobiographical capital of the young urban Chinese woman’s exploration of sexuality, writing, and post-Market reform sensuality in its effective collapsing of author and narrator, exploring a young woman’s identity against the backdrop of the twin encroachments of consumerism and family dysfunction.
Nonetheless Chen Ran’s novel may be distinguished by its intense corporeality and physical “presence.” For instance, Wei Hui’s semi-autobiographical novel Shanghai Baby—a troubling work that embraces consumerism without any detectable irony—presents a female protagonist whose acquisitive habits are flagged in the text by the almost lyrical deployment of a succession of famous brand-names. In Wei Hui’s novel, subjectivity is gendered and then undermined as the female body disappears in lieu of a pastiche of foreign labels, price tags, and imported fabrics. By contrast, a remarkable feature of A Private Life is the almost confrontational omnipresence of bodies, of descriptions of corporeality. The novel is populated, for example, by a profusion of corpses, body parts, and adolescent bodies. The maturation of the narrator’s own body, for instance, is not only chronicled as faithfully as her inner life, but seems to take on a textual life of its own. Ni Niuniu’s body quite literally “asserts” itself within the text: “My breasts, now round and soft, were like two peaches stuffed into the top of my pajamas. My groin had suddenly become broad and flat like a field that seemed big enough to grow lush and fragrant wheat. My buttocks now boldly asserted themselves, full, round, and heavy, curving out from my waist so that I couldn’t lie flat on the bed anymore, and my thighs were long, firm, and lithe, like a pair of exclamation marks.” Likewise Ni Niuniu’s description of her mother’s reaction to seeing a pair of her father’s trousers that she has destroyed with scissors comes back to the body: “Mother’s scream when she went into my room sounded like she had discovered a man with his legs severed, spurting out fountains of hot blood—not just a pair of ruined trousers.” In A Private Life, cities become creatures with arms; urban landscapes come alive; buildings become bodies and bodies become buildings. Of the apartment building inhabited by her suitor and erstwhile teacher, for example, Ni Niuniu narrates: “Like a man caught naked in broad daylight, the building seemed displeased and unwilling to be seen, and we had to look for a long time before we found the path to the main entrance”; while of the teacher himself she relates how “[h]is tall, strong frame looked like a crumbling stone monument that was about to collapse in ruins.”
The pervasive corporeality of A Private Life also renders the book less like the rather apolitical Shanghai Baby than, say, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (or perhaps even Beloved), in which the body is often made to register the horrors of history and the vagaries of difference and desire. Chen, like Morrison, unflinchingly depicts dreadful childhood landscapes, as when her childhood friend Yi Qiu’s parents are “found together in a grove of barren, bent-over trees on the outskirts of the city. They were hanging separately from two adjacent trees,” or when the narrator describes the corpse of the unfortunate Mrs. Ge (a neighbor): “It seemed that the air was filled with the smell of rotting flesh, and the withered and bare wisteria in their courtyard suddenly reminded me of my dream.”
Despite the intensity of some of its themes, A Private Life also has moments of beautiful satire, ranging from a description of the naming of a beloved male family dog (“Sophia Loren”) to a childhood infatuation with Richard Nixon. At one point, for instance, Ni Niuniu describes reading of Nixon’s death in the People’s Daily while flying to a city in the Asian tropics: “I very seriously placed a kiss on that forehead that had borne the brunt of so many of the vicissitudes of life; then I stared out of the plane’s window for a while, imagining that Nixon’s soul had already risen from the earth and was floating in the air outside my window. He looked in at me as we waved a farewell to each other, and I said, ‘Good-bye, Mr. Nixon.’ Then I put the newspaper aside, discarding along with it all those childhood illusions that had involved him.” Even more stirring is the irony of Ni Niuniu’s near brush with the trauma of the Tian’anmen massacre, when a freak accident brings the violence of public life into dangerous proximity with the “private life” of the novel’s title. Walking down an alley nearby Tian’anmen Square one day, Ni Niuniu is struck in the leg by a stray bullet. Encapsulating her own (and the book’s) relationship to politics, she remarks: “I was both enveloped in this atmosphere and apart from it.”
Larissa N. Heinrich
University of New South Wales