Après-Mao

Michael Hofmann

  • Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
    Hamish Hamilton, 208 pp, £14.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 28395 0

There are a few facts and dates. I would like to do without them, or fiddle with them, in the sense that the person they govern is a great writer, and would have been a great writer without them, and so mocks, like Homer of the seven birthplaces, the confining clutch of circumstance, but I can’t. So, take them as they are. Yiyun Li was born in 1973 in Beijing. In 1996, she left for the US. She studied medicine at the University of Iowa, took her Master’s in immunology, worked as a research scientist, then slipped or skipped sideways and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she took her MFA. She has published two books of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2005) and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010), and two novels, The Vagrants (2009), which seems to me one of the first masterpieces of our stumbling century, and Kinder than Solitude (2014), and now a book of essays, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. The flowery title, by the way, is not, as one might have supposed, Li’s, but is quoted from Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks.

Li’s subject – mostly – is the transitional China of après-Mao, though with that she also takes in emigration, expatriation, memory, change, duress. Her tool, at least to begin with, is a simple, curt, unpredictable English, often aphoristic, sometimes folklorically fragrant. It can read like a translation. (This is a compliment, in case you wondered.) ‘Men of all ages slipped into the park like silent fish,’ is how she describes cruising. Someone is given to worrying, ‘like an ant on a hot pot’. A newspaper gossip column bears the title ‘Odd People at This Unique Time’ – it’s applicable everywhere. A sewing-machine ‘made soothing tut-tutting sounds when you pressed it’. As an expression of a small boy’s guilty grief and apprehension (he has inadvertently denounced his father), the following surely can’t be beaten: ‘Tong only sat and nibbled on a noodle that seemed endless.’

The stories have the geometry of a cruel ethics about them. The ethics of a cruel geometry. The cruelty of a geometrical ethics. In ‘Prison’, an illiterate country woman, hired to bear the child of a well-off couple who have emigrated to America, realises her power, gets uppity, and starts to terrorise them, at least for the duration of her pregnancy. In the important long story ‘Kindness’ (which leads off Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), a middle-aged spinster in Beijing looks back on a year in the army and a long acquaintance with one Professor Shan that have left her with an unusual collection of English classic novels. In ‘The Princess of Nebraska’, a gay man escorts a woman made pregnant by his former lover to Chicago, to get an abortion, and gets to wondering if he shouldn’t or couldn’t instead marry her and adopt the child. There is a parade with floats and holiday lights. Irrelation as a form of relation.

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