History and Hats

D.A.N. Jones

  • The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray
    Collins, 123 pp, £7.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 00 222946 3
  • Stones of the Wall by Dai Houying, translated by Frances Wood
    Joseph, 310 pp, £9.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2588 6
  • White Noise by Don DeLillo
    Picador, 326 pp, £9.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 330 29109 2

Marguerite Duras describes a crowd in French Indo-China (in 1930): ‘The clatter of wooden clogs is ear-splitting, the voices strident, Chinese is a language that’s shouted the way I always imagine desert languages are, it’s a language that’s incredibly foreign.’ This impression is familiar to me, from National Service days in Hong Kong and the British New Territories. Yet, at the same time, Chinese poetry does sometimes seem to translate more readily into English than French poetry does, partly because its beauty does not depend so much upon the sound. Chinese ‘ideograms’, as the dictionaries put it, ‘symbolise a thing or an idea but not a particular word or phrase for it’. When Cantonese audiences watch a film in Mandarin, they have subtitles (printed vertically, on either side of the screen), for they cannot understand the sounds: but they share the same ideograms for the things and ideas. This fact about the Chinese language, or languages, has a bearing on both the style and the subject-matter of Dai Houying’s impressive novel about modern China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution: the poetry is in the things and ideas, the clash of ideograms in challenge and response, not in sounds, echoes, national resonances. Stones of the Wall, though deeply concerned with love between men and women, is quite remarkably different from The Lover – and ‘goes into English’ more easily.

Here is Marguerite Duras describing two Frenchwomen with Chinese lovers: ‘Both are doomed to discredit because of the kind of bodies they have, caressed by lovers, kissed by their lips, consigned to the infamy of a pleasure unto death, as they both call it, unto the mysterious death of lovers without love.’ That may sound a rather beautiful incantation in French – but not in English. Here is another: ‘The music spread all over the dark boat, like a heavenly injunction whose import was unknown, like an order from God whose meaning was inscrutable.’ The magic of French sound has gone. Here is another passage which goes better into English: ‘Some birds are shrieking at the tops of their voices, crazy birds. As they sharpen their beaks on it, the cold air rings with an almost deafening clamour.’ My point is that the last passage might have been translated from the Chinese.

The Lover is about a French schoolgirl (poor but privileged in the colonial world) and her love affair with an older Chinese man, wealthy but a member of the subject race. There is no politics in it, no general statements, no abstract ideas, no arguments – only little cries for help. It is all description, evocation of memories leading to no conclusion, a very passive book. Stones of the Wall, in contrast, is hyperactive. It is all argument: abstract ideas, in conflict with love and man’s ‘animal nature’, are a driving force in the characters’ lives. We might complain that Dai Houying has not given us enough description – and this is a pity, for she is very good at it. We would like to know more about what the characters looked like, how they moved, their homes and their landscape. We certainly know what each of them is ‘driving at’, and we may fairly guess what Dai Houying is driving at, too. Stones of the Wall is a political novel.

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