Liu Na’ou’s “Scenery”

MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Liu Na’ou’s “Scenery,” translated by Travis Telzrow. The translation appears below and at its online home: http://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/scenery/.

Enjoy,

Kirk Denton, editor

Scenery

By Liu Na’ou 劉吶鷗[1]

Translated by Travis Telzrow


MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2019)


Cover of the original edition of Scenes from the Metropolis.

People were sitting on speed. Fields flew by. Streams flew by. Thatched cottages, stone bridges, willow trees; every piece of scenery existed in the eyes for just a split-second before vanishing. But here in Ranqing’s hands was a newspaper smelling of fresh oil, its pages covered with typed letters aligned like soldiers in the Roman legion that bounced along with the train’s easy back-and-forth rocking as the morning sun shone on them through the car’s window. Ranqing was hoping to obtain some information about a very important conference being held in Xindu on Monday, so he was being whisked away from that dimly-lit editorial office, which reeked of oil and paper, on this early morning express train.

Passengers were scarce. Save for a few military officers, armed with stern expressions and handlebar moustaches, and a pudgy businessman-type who had brought along his family, the only people even remotely conspicuous were sitting ahead of him: an apparently newlywed couple who still had the sweet taste of youthful love lingering on their lips. The inside of the car was filled with a cool breeze that bore the smell of ammonia from the fields. Ranqing looked as if he had taken a dose of herbal medicine; he was throwing all of the unclean impressions he brought from the city and all of last night’s wanton memories out of his head, feeling as refreshed as if he had been reborn. He had been on the train for no more than a half-hour, yet it had already flown through its third rural station. A herdboy was holding a small bamboo rod and loudly shouting into the wind. Under a plum tree was a flock of chickens, and as if they had heard the attack cry of an eagle, they began to vie with one another as they flew toward a melon field.

Just as Ranqing turned the page and began reading, a woman suddenly walked up to him.

“Excuse me, sir.”

She appeared to have just come from the dining car, the sides of her mouth still carrying with them a strong fragrance of Brazilian coffee. Ranqing stood up, letting her sit as she took the small leather bag from above his head and used it as an armrest; only then did he realize that he was occupying her seat. So he moved to an open spot conveniently across from her. Now the scenery moved in the wrong direction, flying up from behind and moving away from him. But now to Ranqing the scenery, along with the questions of disarmament, Hu Hanmin’s[2] political views, and the tragic death of a certain wealthy Belgian citizen that were held in his hands, were all as trivial as the revolutionary talkie.[3] His eyes were naturally lured to the very real scene and person in front of him.

Seeing her boyish short hair and clothes that showed obvious signs of Westernization, anyone could see she was a product of the modern metropolis, but that straight, rational nose and those fearless, lively eyes are rare even there. Although her build was short, her chest and waist were meticulously curved, giving the impression of a muscular elasticity. Beginning at her neck and stretching their gaze past her shoulders to the curves of her upper arm, people would always feel as if she had just escaped from a Derain canvas.[4] But really, her greatest assets were actually her small neurotic lips that burst open like overripe pomegranates. Someone’s wife? Obviously not, certainly not someone’s mistress. Student? She didn’t look young enough. . . While Ranqing was pondering the matter, he suddenly saw the pomegranate split open as a burst of clear, golden sound entered his ear.

“Am I so worth looking at, sir?”

Ranqing was momentarily startled, hastily raising his eyes as he caught her line of sight. Two silver stars smiling.

“Why don’t you look in a mirror, sir? You have such a charming face for a man!”

He was even more stunned. Although he couldn’t bear her oppressive stare, he was also unable to break away from her line of sight, instead boldly saying,

“Pardon me, madam, no, miss, for I think that beautiful objects ought to be appreciated by people so as to not lose the reason for their existence, would you not agree?”

“You really do have a way with words . . . But, you must often travel this route.”

Yet again the silver stars were smiling.

“Yes, for work—but I’ve never taken such a charming morning train as this before.”

Their conversation started like this. In order to preserve his gentlemanly dignity, Ranqing chose not to probe too much, but she talked freely. She seemed to be naturally bold and unrestrained, the generations of oppression at the hands of men and years of suppressed rage were worn on her lips and expressed in her movements. From what she said, Ranqing gleaned that she was an office worker in a large organization and that she was already somebody’s wife. Her husband recently took this rail line to assume an important post in some county.

“Then you are taking this train to be with him?”

“Yes! He was supposed to return home every weekend, but he has some business there, so on his last visit he told me that this weekend I should definitely join him for a day or two and admire the county’s scenery.”

She continued to smile and remained composed as she spoke. Ranqing did not find her unrestrained childlike spirit ridiculous; rather, a sense of awe and affection for it arose from within his heart.

Suddenly a rumbling sound could be heard from beneath the train car. They had crossed a bridge. A cool breeze blowing up from the river’s cyan surface blew the short hair below her forehead to one side, making the smile below her eyes even more dazzling. She stored the small mirror that was in her hand inside a small box and continued speaking.

“Then I told him, ‘If you can’t make it home, wouldn’t finding a cute girl from the county to accompany you be just as good? In a county that large, beautiful girls aren’t scarce, finding one you think agreeable shouldn’t be difficult.’ But he replied that he wouldn’t dare accept such a girl. He meant that not only have country girls not experienced the same fine, cultural upbringing of city girls, but that even if they have had those experiences, they just aren’t as visually appealing as city girls. You see, he’s an admirer of culture, though I don’t necessarily agree. I think that everything in the big city is imperfect. Only when people learn from the uncivilized and nakedly expose their true emotions can they achieve true happiness.”

“You are quite right. But sometimes beautiful city girls like you are apt to make men fall down in a drunken stupor. To tell you the truth, from the instant I saw you, my pounding heart was already under your control.”

Two pairs of smiling eyes locked together. Meanwhile, Ranqing felt a sharp pain hit his shin from below the table dividing them; and though it was rather painful, he found it quite enjoyable. He looked down and saw two cute, dove-like feet in high heels and two round kneecaps exposed at the mouth of her short skirt.

“I didn’t think a person lacking fat such as yourself would say these kinds of words.”

“Are you saying I’m skinny? Skinny, a body that’s skinny becomes a straight line, and straight lines are critical factors in modern life!”

The train approached the station. On that side of the canal was a colorless ancient city wall, half of which had already collapsed, the other half tilting over. Two small boats with white sails hoisted in the breeze floated on the water like two white geese out of a medieval dream. Ranqing felt as if he had been taken back two or three centuries.

The train stopped. Along with a clamoring of peoples’ voices, the atmosphere of the car gradually became more restless: exiting, entering, peddling goods, moving luggage, picking up passengers, seeing them off. Because her mother was not willing to buy her some Western doll, the daughter of the pudgy businessman was on the verge of tears. A fast-paced jazz melody pulsed through the train station. Standing halfway up the belly of a black mountain of coal were two extremely large stokers, whose hands were busily wielding iron shovels, creating in the process a German expressionist painting. Ranqing was once again reborn. At the same time, he heard his beautiful, rare companion say from in front of him,

“If I get off the train here for a short while, would you like to accompany me?”

The woman’s eyes hinted at the correct answer. Ranqing may as well have been stumbling around in the dark. After a moment he respectfully replied,

“When the lady asks me directly, I am compelled to obey directly. I believe that it is my duty to do so.”

Altogether, their luggage amounted to just two small hand bags. While they were exiting, a stream of white steam rose from the locomotive, and the departing train sounded its steam whistle.

 

As they opened the door, a burst of heavy air hit their noses. No. 4711’s sweet fragrance—white face powder, stockings, sweat, moist leather bags, lard, oxidized iron, medicine—all of these scents blended together to create a kind of gaseous cocktail. It was a hotel room. After the attendant put down the items he was holding and left, the woman unexpectedly hugged Ranqing, stole a rash, energetic kiss from his lips, and said:

“I loved you from the very beginning.”

She went to the mirror to briefly comb her hair, and upon returning grabbed his hand, saying,

“Why don’t we go outside? Such a wonderful place!”

Although Ranqing was reluctant, he knew that going against the woman’s spontaneous desire was of no use.

 

A sunflower blossomed next to the road. Early autumn’s sunlight brought a yellow hue. A country girl sitting on a donkey moved passed, her waist rocking comfortably back and forth in response to the donkey’s small steps. In the weeds were two white goats looking askance at their two unexpected guests. After descending a slope, the country road they were on was cut off by a tangle of trees.

Separating the branches and walking on a road that seemed to not to be a road, they saw a small hill in front of them. A small crested bird flew overhead. She said her feet hurt, and took off the pair of high heels and carried them in her hand, treading on the grass and climbing up the hill in her expensive stockings.

She was a small bird released from her cage. Her two small feet, which seemed fit only for walking on asphalt roads lined with extravagant shops, were moving up and down step-by-step as she climbed vigorously, a decorative border revealed from inside her skirt. By the time they reached the top, both parties were out of breath. Several pearls floated on their foreheads, though they thought that the ground beneath their thighs was quite pleasant and cool.

“Every time I come to these kinds of places I think that clothes are truly disgusting things.”

As she said this she undressed until she had nothing on save a thin chemise. On skin as smooth and delicate as white raw silk were several Danube rivers, each one showing its dark green current. Flecks of red from her stocking suspenders gnawed on snow white legs.

“What are you looking at? If I didn’t respect your being a gentleman, I would have already donned nature’s beautiful clothes. Why don’t you get moving and take off those mechanical clothes?”

Although Ranqing was startled by her, at this moment of weariness he really did think clothes were a mechanical and absolutely superfluous thing. Again he thought, not only are these clothes mechanical, but the houses we live in are becoming mechanical. All those buildings and implements formed by straight lines and angles, electric wires, water pipes, heating pipes, gas pipes, and rooftop transformer rooms—are people not living inside of machines? Now, being in this kind of a place is a way of leaving behind those mechanical constraints, returning home as nature intended. He couldn’t help but turn toward the sky and take in two unpolluted breaths of fresh air, vigorously feeling that his whole body had been refreshed. At the same time, he also felt a primitive warmth flowing from his body.

Now he knew how the woman could tolerate the aches in her feet and run down so many roads to bring him to this deserted place.

“What are you saying to the clouds?”

“I was just thinking that your body and your thoughts are quite similar to that red cloud: free and unrestrained.”

“Really? Then, I want to expand its freedom and lack of restraint.”

A fire started in her eyes, a soft arm already intertwined with his neck.

The short grass extended into a vast green bed sheet.

That evening, the train station’s station master saw the same man and woman he had seen in the morning board the outbound train—one representing the newspaper office who was going to obtain some information about an important conference, the other about to pass an idle weekend together with her husband.

Notes

[1] This translation was a final project for a course taught by Professor Patricia Sieber at Ohio State University. I thank her for her comments on an early draft. “Scenery” (風景) was first published in the collection Scenes from the Metropolis (都市風景線) (Shanghai: Shuimo shudian, 1930)

[2] Hu Hanmin 胡漢民 was a high-ranking party leader in the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party).

[3] The word “talkie” appears in English in the text. All subsequent italicized words appear in English in the original.

[4] French painter André Derain (1880-1954), was a cofounder, with his friend Henri Matisse, of Fauvism and was most active at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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