Geling Yan: White Snake and Other Stories

Geling Yan
White Snake and Other Stories
Aunt Lute Books

AMONG GELING YAN'S collection White Snake and Other Stories is "The Death of the Lieutenant," a tale of a soldier from an impoverished Chinese province, condemned to die for a murder that occurred in connection with a petty theft. In his final hours he contemplates his watch: "Each of its rotations was so effortless, so unlike human affairs."

The effort of human affairs is much on the mind of Geling Yan, an author renowned in China but largely unknown here (White Snake is her first work available in English translation). The book's stories are united by the efforts of characters to overcome the walls between them--and their frequent failures to do so. In the novella White Snake, the elegant dancer Sun Likun is imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Time and the conditions of her incarceration strip her of dignity and allure, but eventually she begins to receive frequent visits from a mysterious commissar. Their interaction resuscitates Sun Likun's old self, and erotic desire surfaces, but the dictates of propriety and convention keep the would-be lovers apart.

"Celestial Bath" tells of Wen Xiu, an "Intellectual Youth" from urban Chengdu filled with loathing for the horse herder alongside whom she is conscripted to work. Herdsman Lao Jin, a man in his 40s, exhibits leering desire for Wen Xiu, but underneath his crudity is a tenderness and compassion that keeps him from crossing boundaries. Lao Jin's relative restraint contrasts with the predatory behavior of male officials anxious to take advantage of the girl's desire for escape.

In Yan's stories it is the small kindness, the brief, tender moment, that surmounts the walls. At these times her characters, no matter how recalcitrant, breathe free, as when Wen Xiu feels the beauty of the herdsman's song: "At times she wished Lao Jin would just die--but not the song. The song should follow her even when she left this place."

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