Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Lao She's proletarian classic Rickshaw - a ghost caught in Individualism’s blind alley

How about one more novel where the protagonist moves around all the time.  Mostly within one city, Peking, in this case, Rickshaw by Lao She (1937).  You will find this book on pretty much ever list of the greatest or most important or what have you 20th century Chinese novels.  I know very little about 20th century Chinese novels.

I read the 1979 translation by Jean M. James.  Look at this translator’s note:

Those who have read Evan King’s translation published in 1945 as Rickshaw Boy will wonder if Rickshaw is the same novel.  It is.  King cut, rearranged, rewrote, invented characters, and changed the ending. (p. vi)


One more note, which I found amusing, about the intellectual context, not the translation:

During the twenties and thirties the Chinese literary world expended a lot of time and ink on the question of proletarian literature.  All the left-wing writers were convinced that such literature was needed and must be written…  With so much energy going into polemics over the need for proletarian literature, the left-wing writers did not actually do much creative work.  (xi)

But here it is finally, a real proletarian novel, about a young, strong, ambitious Peking rickshaw driver who lives in a sociologically accurate world and runs into just the kind of trouble his real counterparts would meet.  He dreams of nothing more than owning his own rickshaw, and once in a while he succeeds, but he has no support when anything goes wrong – conscription, illness, a corrupt policeman.  He succeeds by his own strength, and fails by bad luck, until he finally stops trying.  He has become, in the novel’s last line, “that degenerate, selfish, unlucky offspring of society’s womb, a ghost caught in Individualism’s blind alley” (249).  The novel ends in despair, or in a political rallying cry, for readers who took it that way.

Novels that rely on lines like that are not what I think of as great works of art, and this one has plenty of lines like that, but it has other pleasures.  The depiction of Peking is always interesting.  “It was filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable; it was the great Peking of early summer” (240).  The social picture is interesting, too, not just of the protagonist but of other rickshaw drivers worse off them him.  A chapter about the inhabitants of an awful tenement, right in the middle of the novel, is instructively grim.

My favorite moments in the book are when Lao She mixes the elements into something almost visionary, as in Chapter 8, when he describes Lao She working during one of Peking / Beijing’s signature winter sandstorms:

The cold wind whistled up his sleeves, making his whole body shudder the way it did in a cold bath.  Sometimes a wild wind rose, making it hard for him to breathe, but he lowered his head, gritted his teeth, and charged onward like a big fish swimming against the current.  The greater the wind the stronger his resistance to it; it was as if he and the wild wind were in a battle to the death…  His entire frame fought back like a green insect surrounded by ants.  And what sweat!  When he put down the rickshaw, let out a long breath, and wiped the yellowish sand out of the corners of his mouth he knew that he was a man no one could match!  (74)

Lao She is rarely as inventive as his hero and inspiration Charles Dickens, but how many writers can say that.

Next up, a novel where the protagonist mostly just sits still, staring into the fire.

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