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.

Marguerite Duras is certainly not a ‘non-political’ person. She served with the French Resistance, and was expelled from the French Communist Party in 1950. But her best-known (in Britain) work has been pictorial, provoking the question: ‘What is she driving at?’ We may have seen her movie, Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), concerned with love between a European and an Asian as much as the famous bombing. We may have seen her plays, Le Square and Des Journées Entières dans les Arbres, translated into English, and wondered what she was driving at, though we are less likely to have read the novel and short story upon which those plays were based. The Square (I remember, as a theatre reviewer) was about a miserable pair, failing to make any conclusion of a courtship on a park bench, and it was denounced by John Osborne for being pointless. Days Spent in the Trees was about a greedy, possessive mother doting on her son – but what was Duras driving at? Harold Hobson found an abstract idea in it, the idea of ‘indulgence’, and other theatre reviewers followed his lead. As for Hiroshima, mon amour, I have read that Duras’s senior, Marguerite Yourcenar, has remarked that the very title expresses its wrongheadedness: it is as bad as saying Auschwitz mon chou.

It is possible that what she was driving at in those two plays and the movie was the very story she tells in The Lover: for here again we have the inconclusive courtship of a miserable pair, an Asian man and a European girl – who has a rather silly mother, doting on her son – and the world of politics and public affairs is subordinated, almost ignored, through the consuming interest of the love affair. Marguerite Duras was born in Indo-China in 1914 (returning to France when she was 17), so she is of an age with the heroine of The Lover, a 15-year-old schoolgirl in 1930.

Perhaps it is the pictorial value of The Lover that attracts so strongly, for this novel won the Prix Goncourt in 1984. We begin with the old lady talking about her ‘ravaged’ face, which an old man tells her he prefers to her girlish face – which, she says, was ‘a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age ... I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it.’ Then we are told about her looks when she was 15, in terms of her hat, shoes and dress. She went to school in gold lamé evening shoes, high-heeled, decorated with little diamanté flowers: they had eclipsed her other shoes, made of white canvas, for playing and running about. She was also wearing a sleeveless dress with a very low neck: it had belonged to her mother and was ‘the sepia colour real silk takes on with wear’. Round it was buckled a leather belt, perhaps belonging to one of her brothers. Oddest of all, for a French schoolgirl in Saigon, is her hat, a man’s flat-brimmed hat, a brownish-pink fedora with a broad black ribbon. No other woman in the town, European or Asian, wears a hat like that. ‘I’m using make-up already. I use Crème Tokalon and try to camouflage the freckles on my cheeks, under the eyes ... Inside the limousine there’s a very elegant man looking at me. He’s not a white man. He’s wearing European clothes – the light tussore suit of the Saigon bankers.’

The lover’s ‘goldenness’ is reported, the quality of his skin, ‘sumptuously soft’. He talks distractedly of the life he has enjoyed in Paris, he likes to call the girl a slut and a whore, ‘he moans, weeps. In dreadful love. And, weeping, he makes love.’ His wealthy father, he says, is a widower who sits staring at the river, glued to his opium pipe, managing his money from a little iron cot. ‘He won’t let his son marry the little white whore from Sadec.’ The girl’s mother is sometimes falsely cheery about her daughter’s affair, but at other times she goes wild, slapping and punching the girl, sniffing her underwear for traces of the Chinese man’s scent, shouting out that her daughter is a prostitute ... The story dies away, like a sad song.

The Lover is made up of brief impressions, not in chronological order: it is left to the reader to draw conclusions of a general, public sort. Barbara Bray has put it all into good English, in such a way that we feel we are missing something by not reading it in French. Nor do we have the French experience. The ‘story’ sometimes jumps a long way forward in time, with impressions of the war years in France and the ‘grace’ of Betty Fernandez going about the streets of Paris, unspoiled by the cold, the hunger, the defeat of Germany, ‘above the history of such things, however terrible’. Betty Fernandez was a collaborator during the German occupation of France. ‘And I,’ says the narrator, ‘two years after the war, I was a member of the French Communist Party. The parallel is complete and absolute.’ Both women are said to have made the same mistake, to have fallen for ‘the same superstition if you like, that consists in believing in a political solution to the personal problem’.

That is as far as The Lover goes in discussing general ideas: but the brief impression of the Communist and the Nazi collaborator in post-war Paris has a relevance to the situation of the Chinese characters in Stones of the Wall – journalists, teachers and university employees – warily relaxing after the exertions of the Cultural Revolution, certainly not ‘above the history of such things’, thinking and arguing about what History (that ideogram) means. Some of these colleagues have done terrible things to one another.

Part One begins with an epigraph or slogan: ‘In everybody’s mind, a bit of history is stored, with its own independent existence.’ The first chapter is (like all the others) a dramatic monologue. A journalist called Zhao Zhenhuan is talking about his two wives: he has been dreaming about his first wife (for he is divorced), and he is about to go on a journalistic assignment to Shanghai University where she is ‘departmental Party Secretary’. His second wife, of course, knows what is in his mind. Half-asleep she murmurs: ‘In those days, everybody liked workers. You respected me then. Now intellectuals are back in favour, so you’re bound to think Sun Yue would be better than me.’ Zhao remembers how Sun Yue had been labelled ‘an inveterate conservative’. After that the ‘hats’ (epithets) came thick and fast: she had to stand in an auditorium, with her head bowed before the masses, with a card round her neck labelling her as ‘concubine of the Shanghai University Party Secretary’. His second wife pulls his nose when he dreams noisily. She asks: ‘Why do you think you’ve gone grey so quickly? You’re only just 44 and you’re half-white. People might think I don’t look after you.’ The epigraph to this chapter is: ‘History can be treacherous. It sometimes makes a surprise attack on me in the night. My hair has gone white.’

Each of the chapters is constructed in similar style. One of the ten principal characters is offering a monologue, talking about the ‘hats’ which people put on one another, musing on some definition of ‘history’. Sun Yue narrates the second chapter, beginning with the morose epigraph: ‘The past and the present are indivisible. I’m tired of it.’ She is with Xi Liu, the Party Secretary, a grim, rather stupid old Communist who was humiliated during the Cultural Revolution. Xi Liu’s wife is also present: like Sun Yue (but with more truth) she had been accused of being Xi Liu’s concubine. Sun Yue does not like this woman: ‘she’s over fifty but there isn’t a wrinkle on her round, pale face. Just like her name – a slab of jade.’ Having been sex-smeared herself, the jade-faced woman is inclined to play the same game on others. Xi Liu and his wife are plotting against a teacher called Xu Hengzhong. Xi Liu says: ‘What qualifications does Xu Hengzhong have to criticise the Gang of Four? He supported them.’ The jade-faced wife joins in: ‘He hated us old cadres. Did you know he comes from a landlord background?’ She begins to suggest that Sun Yue is in love with Xu Hengzhong.

Next we have a monologue from another of Sun Yue’s admirers. This is He Jingfu, presented as the most worthy and decent man in the book. His epigraph begins: ‘I treasure history because I want to use it as a gauge against the future ...’ He was very badly maltreated during the Cultural Revolution and then became a wandering craftsman. He has travelled along the Great Wall and speaks of it in poetic aphorisms, one of them being the source of the book’s title, Stones of the Wall. (It is like a more optimistic version of that grim pop song: ‘All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.’) He Jingfu’s worst failing is his tendency (common among Marxists) to read out boring aphorisms from classic works: his own aphorisms are better. He has written a book called Marxism and Humanism, and part of the novel’s plot concerns the question whether He Jingfu’s book will get published. Another important theme is: which will be the lucky man who gets Sun Yue? He Jingfu is a calm, pleasingly stoical man. When he was rehabilitated, he thought: ‘History has been restored to me.’ A student tells him: ‘I know you believe in fair play’ (in English in the original) ‘but it just doesn’t work in China today.’

An attractive portrait of He Jingfu appears in the monologue of Xu Hengzhong, his rival for Sun Yue’s love. This narrator is a rather tough-minded man. His epigraph is: ‘The whole of history can be summarised in two words, “rising” and “falling”. In the past I rose and put others down, now I am falling.’ He is rather like a Kingsley Amis character, a slangy sort of blighter but witty and well-read: others describe him paradoxically (or dialectically?) as a figure of ‘sensitive insensitivity, elegant vulgarity, the keen insight of the ignorant, directionless retreat’. One can almost visualise the ideograms. He has his virtues. He is making his son a pair of trousers: ‘Children’s trousers must be cut right or they’ll be uncomfortable. He’s got a nice little bottom. I haven’t smacked it once since his mother died.’ He is also disingenuous, quick to dissemble. He says to He Jingfu: ‘You ask me to take on the burden of history but history doesn’t have to take care of me. It’s been a lot kinder to Xi Liu.’ The oracular He Jingfu replies: ‘History is like someone with a very concealed character: it doesn’t show its true colours lightly.’ They snap at one another, in new-minted epigrams.

This is a novel on which the English reader needs to concentrate, and if we concentrate we shall find it compelling. There are obvious difficulties, such as the easily-confused Chinese names, some of which sound funny to us (there is a man called Wang Panzi, whose mannerisms are rather ‘pansy’), and all of which have Chinese meanings. (Zhao Zhenhuan has two daughters, both called Huanhuan, meaning ‘Little Ring’, but the lost daughter is sometimes called Hanhan, meaning ‘stupid’, and sometimes, Hanhan, ‘regret’.) Then there is the tiresomeness of that language where the Marxist stereotype meets the Chinese ideogram, and the characters put ‘hats’ on one another, while talking of ‘History’ as if it were a god – a false idol, like Providence or Fate. But the author, too, is a critic of these Chinese Marxist tendencies, and I trust her judgment as well as admire her work.

With White Noise we are taken to a very different university, a cosy-seeming American one which has become famous through the ingenuity of Jack Gladney, the Professor of Hitler Studies, a discipline he has himself invented. His colleagues study supermarkets and food-labelling: one of them ‘reviews fiction for the CIA, mainly long serious novels with coded structures’. But Jack Gladney’s course on Advanced Nazism has really put the college on the map. He has taken on a new image, upon the advice of the college principal, wearing heavy suits on his big body and sinister dark glasses, naming himself ‘J.A.K. Gladney – a tag I wore like a borrowed suit’. Though he ‘reads deeply in Hitler well into the night’, he knows no German – and all his students do: so do the Hitler scholars who are all coming to his important Hitler conference in a few months’ time. Gladney has to sneak away to take secret German lessons from a nasty old German called Dunlop, who is probably a war criminal.

This seems to me quite a good sick joke, worthy of Terry Southern. Forty years after his death, Hitler is still almost a taboo subject for jokes. We remember ‘Springtime for Hitler’. Survivors of the Titanic disaster don’t care for jests on the theme. But Don DeLillo, like so many American novelists, has a larger subject in mind, the fear of Death. J.A.K. Gladney has a morbid fear of extinction – not just dying – and he finds that his wife shares his obsession: in fact, she has some concealed drugs specially made to immunise death-fearers. Then, over the cosy town there floats an ‘airborne toxic event’, a poisonous cloud arising from an industrial accident, and the little families are evacuated by emergency specialists and Civil Defence workers with Mylex suits and Day-Glo pylons: the little families wear life-jackets and carry flares. J.A.K. Gladney is persuaded that he might overcome his fear of death if he actually killed somebody.