I think I read one French book in the last two years, and as a result, my French might have gotten a bit rusty. And as it turns out, reading a novel that consists mainly of dense descriptions is not the best way to get back into a language. Who would have thought?
In a generous estimate, I think I probably understood three quarters of the novel – but this being, precisely, a novel, the semantically murky final quarter was most likely the most important part – the nuances and shades of meaning, the things not said but inferred, the whole comet’s tail of connotations trailing after the various images the novel deploys. In consequence, this post should be taken with an even larger pinch of salt than usual as it is pretty much certain I missed a lot here.
As is clear from the title onwards, this novels is a love story – and it probably was a good idea of Anyi Wang to point this out in the title, or else people might not have guessed from her novel alone. The author goes to great lengths to make the relationship between her protagonists as unromantic as possible – they are very unlike each other (mentally as well as physically), they barely communicate with each other verbally (in fact, the whole novel has almost no dialogue at all), they fight with each other almost as much as they make love to each other (to the point where the one becomes almost indistinguishable from the other), and more than once the reader is beset by the strong suspicion that they do not even like each other. And yet, there is an undeniable attraction between them, an attraction that maybe is all the stronger because it manifests itself in spite of the people it connects. This is the story of a veritable amour fou, then, and it’s probably not a surprise that it appears to only have been translated into French.
The novel’s protagonists – who, as far as I can remember, are never named, but remain simply “she” and “he” throughout the novel – are dancers in a ballet troupe based in a small Chinese village; the translator’s in addition foreword informs us that it is taking place during the cultural revolution (not something I would have noticed for myself, but… see above). They are both somewhat outsiders, not particularly likeable, and would be nothing special if it wasn’t for their physical form, the girl being unusually large and the boy being unusually small. This already indicates that Anyi Wang is not going to stick with traditional expectations, and as it turns out, she is not sticking with any expectations at all – I suspect she might have set out writing the novel with the purpose of writing an Anti-Romance; and while she certainly succeeded with that, I could not help the feeling that in parts she was rather overdoing it with the breaking of Romantic patterns, to the point where I had to forcefully remind myself that I was supposed to be reading a love story.
Almost everything that happens in this slim novel happens on the physical plane – there is no touching of minds here, but a continued series of colliding bodies. And that is to be taken quite literally – the protagonists hurl their bodies against each other, flail, bump, scratch, kiss, bite, fuck and explore pretty much every single form of bodily contact that is physically possible. Emotions do run high, but they are almost never given expression in verbal form – love, this novel seems to say, is not a meeting of like souls in harmony but is continuous, fierce struggle between bodies that are ineluctably drawn to each other even against the conscious will of the minds inhabiting them.
Unfortunately – and here I am stepping onto really thin ice, because of my limited comprehension of the language – the novel seems to resort a bit too much to telling rather than showing which robs it of some of the impact it otherwise might have had. There is a distant, almost detached tone to the narrative over long stretches which I think fits ill with the purely physical nature of the relationship depicted in it. However, those passages alternate with beautiful, vivid descriptions which give the novel an intensity which seems appropriate to its subject matter. On the other hand, this switching between a more distanced and a more immediate narrative tonality might very well have been intentional and might very well work for someone who is more familiar with the French language (or who even is able to read the novel in its original Chinese) than me. And even I liked the novel sufficiently that I might seek out the other two novels of the trilogy Amour dans une petite ville is apparently part of.