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Sins and punishments

By Lu Qianwen Source:Global Times Published: 2013-6-13 19:08:01

Author Su Tong poses for photos after his book The Boat to Redemption was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize in Hong Kong on November 17, 2009. Photo: IC

Author Su Tong poses for photos after his book The Boat to Redemption was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize in Hong Kong on November 17, 2009. Photo: IC

With less trace of the pioneering style seen in his previous writings, Su Tong, as one of the most important authors of China's avant-garde movement that outshined other literature schools during the mid 1980s and 1990s, is still at the center of the spotlight each time he puts forward a new book.

Huang Que Ji, or The Tale of the Siskin (not an official translation), which was already published in the 3rd issue of Harvest magazine in May, is going to be officially published as a book in August by the Writers Publishing House. Casting off the creative experiments of language and style from previous novels that were deemed as key elements to the avant-garde literature of the 1980s, the new novel, just like his greatly accomplished last one, The Boat to Redemption (2009), is largely focused on the contents of the writing, which deeply explores human nature.

Winning the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009, The Boat to Redemption reflects the author's thoughts on people's desire, spiritual exile and redemption in the 1970s. And the new book, The Tale of the Siskin, is about people's reactions to the sins they commit or those committed against them and the punishment people get or impose on others.

Though with similar subjects, the two books are in different styles according to Cheng Yongxin, managing editor of the Harvest. "The Boat to Redemption is a reflection of history, but the new book connects history and reality, and inspires readers to ponder the question of how we will lead our lives in the future," said Cheng.

A triangulated crime

Detailed in more than 200,000 words, Su's new novel unfolds with a rape committed in the 1980s that involves three young people, Baorun, Liusheng and Xiannü. They are the leading characters in the book, and the impact of the incident is gradually revealed over a 20-year period.

In the story, Baorun is mistakenly identified as the one who committed the rape of Xiannü and is sentenced to jail for 10 years. Liusheng, who was the real rapist, chooses to live a low-profile and penitent life in the years that follow. And Xiannü, the victim of the crime, who later turns out to be Miss Bai in the book, sinks into a life of prostitution after the tragedy.

"The theme is about sins, punishments and self-redemption," said Su about his new book. "It inherits the style of the serial 'Xiangchun street' (a street in a southern city that has appeared in many of Su's novels as the setting for a story), and displays the psychological clashes during the growth of the three characters, against the larger backdrop of the [country's] social changes," he introduced.

Starting with a crime, the story actually reserves its essence for the latter half, in which the author elaborates on the inward conflicts and outer physical clashes among the three.

After serving 10 years in prison and being set free, Baorun, the most important character in the book, ultimately ends up in jail again. Tortured by the hesitation of whether or not to take revenge and how to do it, he finally chooses to kill Liusheng, the source of the injustice he had suffered.

The other two, Liusheng and Xiannü, in the later chapters were much inked with their confessions or schemes for revenge with their convertible identities as victims or victimizers.

Ample use of metaphors

Arising from a case of being wrongfully accused, the story gradually fans out into an extremely complicated triangular relationship that gets tangled over dozens of years. "The relationship between them is debt repayment and request, like Xiannü, she was the victim of what Liusheng did, but to Baorun, she became a victimizer. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't eliminate the debt inside her heart," said Su.

The complicated relationship among the three main characters is actually a metaphor to depict people's mentality in the whole nation, according to Cheng. "It looks like just a story, but it delivers the author's deep and detailed exploration of the whole nation's psychology, about self-redemption and how we view our history," Cheng told the Global Times.

Besides the allusion of the grand theme, the use of metaphor in the book is also impressive in other parts. For instance, the name of the book is metaphorically derived from an old Chinese saying. The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole (siskin) lurking behind, implicating one is too focused on the imminent benefits to realize the danger behind him.

"Siskin implies unfortunate or disappointing occurrences in the book that always disrupt a happy or consummate resolution, which readers might expect from the various suspenseful elements buried in the plot," said Su.

Also there are details about Baorun's habit of tying knots and his grandfather's routine of having a self-portrait made each year. Su explains tying knots is meant to underline the confinements of society in those days and the grandfather's taking pictures is a way of seeking his lost soul.

"Baorun's habit of tying knots is a metaphor to the political atmosphere in the 1980s in which the whole society is strapped," said Su, "and the grandfather's self-seeking behavior represents my concerns for the state of people today."

Still avant-garde?

First famed for his book The Escape in 1934, which was published in 1987, Su was further widely known for Wives and Concubines (1990), which was later adapted into the internationally recognized film Raise the Red Lantern directed by Zhang Yimou in 1991.

Together with Yu Hua, Ma Yuan, Ye Zhaoyan and others, Su had a leading voice in the avant-garde literary trend of the 1980s. But today, with most of them having turned away from "manipulating" novel languages or styles and falling into the realm of realism again, Su's works are still regarded as possessing the spirit of a pioneer.

"Writers of that generation show a strong desire to reflect reality now in their works, but an outstanding one like Su distinguishes himself by choosing a special way of how to show life," said Cheng, "like the plentiful use of metaphors in The Tale of the Siskin, through which not only is the past connected with the present, but the complexity of human nature unfolds."

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