Working through the pain

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2014-6-10 19:13:05

Chen Xiwo Photo: Courtesy of People's Literature Publishing House

There's a common notion that even if reading doesn't provide knowledge, wisdom or enlightenment, at the very least it can bring you pleasure. This idea, however, may not necessarily apply when it comes to novelist Chen Xiwo's I'm Hurt, as the new book is all about pain. 

Published by the People's Literature Publishing House, I'm Hurt is a collection of nine short novels, each talking about physical or psychological anguish of some kind. With these stories the author hopes to stimulate the pain centers of readers' brains in a deliberately unpleasant way.

The nine circles of hell

"We never notice that we have a soul, until we are hurt," says the book's cover.

With that message as its stepping stone, I'm Hurt covers the various painful situations that people encounter in real life, from the physical such as a daughter suffering from painful menstruation cramps to the more spiritual like the pain of loneliness a rich woman who pays for male prostitutes experiences, the author covers a full range of situations.

The most impressive story, touches on the concept of euthanasia by depicting the pain a dying woman's children experience as they struggle with the dilemma of sustaining her life at the price of her pain, or letting her pass on at the price of their own.

The mother, tortured by disease, decides to give up her life, but her three daughters cannot afford to let her go at the risk of being criticized as "unfilial," so they continue to try to rescue her from death, which consequently brings the mother even more pain.

In the seventh story, "Bathroom," Chen shows the pain and misery of Chinese immigrants to other countries. In the story a wife heads to Tokyo to further her education, later attempting to find a way for her husband to come join her. Later, her husband arrives only to discover the horrible lengths she had to go to get him into the country.

Such psychological and ethical dilemmas run through all nine stories, often making readers feel a harsh pain beyond their ability to bear. 

"We've all experienced pain, but in this book I want to show pain in a wider and deeper sense, the innate pain, the pain of a society in transformation and so on," Chen said.

Deliberate offense

The common feeling among readers is that Chen's book is a rather depressing read. His novels, unlike other books that provide readers an enjoyable reading experience, usually leave readers in a state of depression with its heavy truths and revelations about the dark or shady side of life.

"Chen Xiwo is never a novelist looking to please you. He doesn't expect readers to like him or love him at all. I don't like him either," wrote Li Jingze, the vice-president of the Chinese Writer's Association, in the preface.

"When I read his books, I have to take a deep breath and relax. I feel nervous, as if I'm going to get into the ring to face a ruthless rival."

Chen never hesitates to penetrate the painful part of life and present it to readers bluntly, forcing then to face the hidden part of life that they may "not be willing to see."

Chen holds to the ideal that "writing is offending." This notion of writing is demonstrated in many of his works, including I Love My Mum, Irritation, Exile, Immigrants and so on.

Crowned as a post avant-garde writer, Chen's works are considered by some critics as "abnormal" illustrations of life. However, Chen doesn't take this as a negative, "I think the abnormality of life is where literature should start. We don't need to write about our normal lives," Chen explains, adding that many of his novels are not completely baseless.

According to Chen, much of I'm Hurt is based on his personal experience. The story of the dying mother is based on the experiences of his own grandmother and his wife's grandmother. While his grandmother died at 100, she spent the last 20 years bedridden. "We all come to that moment when we take our last breath. It is unavoidable. … China has become an aging society. It is time to talk about euthanasia."

"Chinese people like to stress pursuing happiness in the present. It helps us survive the suffering we've experienced in history, but also makes us to ignore or even shun the existence of suffering, which delays solutions. … I want to wake up Chinese people's awareness of misery and pain. Pain is still there despite your numbness. So it is better to treat it as proof of our existence and develop compassion for human society as a whole," Chen said.

Search for truth

Born in 1963 in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, Chen graduated from Fujian Normal University and studied in Japan from 1989 to 1994. He started to write in the 1980s and aroused much controversy in the 1990s for his blunt portrayals of the shady side of life. 

Now he has become the author of dozens of novels and the winner of many domestic literature prizes. His works have also been introduced to countries such as Britain, the US, France, Japan and Singapore.

Reflecting on the development of his style, Chen said that he focused on uncovering the truth of life from the start. "This probably has to do with my personality. I was deceived a lot in my childhood, so I seldom confided in others. As my secrets grew stale, I had to write them out to some extent."

Despite earning huge recognition over the years, his penetrating and blunt depiction of life remains controversial in China.

"Truth is always hidden in shadows we cannot or are unwilling to face. We desire for truth, but truth usually appears dreadful," Chen said, addressing the controversy about his works.

"But revealing the truth is not my ultimate goal," he added. "We cannot depend on the truth to live. I hope good things, such as belief or compassion can come from the truth. The purpose of I'm Hurt is to show compassion."

Newspaper headline: Writer rips the bandage off of the dark side of life

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