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April Books

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Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada

April 26, 2010

April Books

New works by Xiao and Carson

by Robert Kotyk, Shane Patrick Murphy

Photo: Two Dollar Radio

The Cave Man
Xiaoda Xiao
Two Dollar Radio: Columbus, Ohio, 2009.

For Ja Feng, the protagonist of Xiaoda Xiao's autobiographical novel The Cave Man, the physical hardships he endures during a stint in a Maoist prison camp are overshadowed by the emotional turmoil that follows him, unshakably, out of captivity.

Convicted on a trumped-up charge of associating with a "counterrevolutionary organization" (i.e., a small group of friends), Ja Feng finds himself inexplicably sentenced to eight years in a camp. Soon afterward, following a complaint lodged in protest of another prisoner's murder, he is placed in solitary confinement—"the stone womb," as one prisoner remarks—for a total of nine months, the state in which we find him as the novel begins:

He could not sleep at night, and grew nervous during the daytime, watching through the food hole to see if soldiers or prison officers passed by. When they did, he would beg them to let him out, and shouted curses at them when they ignored him. Finally he got tired, and grew too weak to shout. It was then that he began to get used to sleeping with his body coiled. His dreams always lasted a long time, sometimes two days, sometimes three or four. They would continue even in the daytime when he was awake, so the old warden poked fun at him and said he looked like a madman.

Only the first 20 pages of the novel take place within the dank confines of Ja Feng’s solitary confinement cell, but like childhood, its influence stretches far beyond release from the condition itself. And like children who suffer abuse at home, the remainder of his life is spent reacting, in tragic hindsight, to the memory of a time when the sum of his experience was defined by the cruelty of his keepers.

Released after his brother-in-law calls in a favour, Ja Feng is stricken with nightly screaming fits and terrible nightmares. He moves from relationship to relationship, job to job, occasionally escaping into nihilism and finding comfort in the thought that "in less than a hundred years none of them would exist in the world."

Xiao himself was imprisoned for seven years for accidentally tearing a poster of Mao. The story of Ja Feng, he writes in the novel’s preface, is based partly on this experience, and partly on the lives of other camp survivors in his acquaintance, who “had expected that they would be able to enjoy the remainder of their lives freely when they stepped out of the iron gate, only to find themselves living in another prison camp larger than the one they had survived.”

Despite the intensity of its emotion, The Cave Man advances with a calm, straightforward candor that seems at once appropriately stripped of post-modern gamesmanship and somewhat lacking in narrative or artistic guile. But only within the book’s last quarter does this unambiguous style becomes its strength. Eventually, Ja Feng seems to find his metier as an artist and teacher in America. A reader is tempted to assume the protagonist-as-obscured-version-of-the-author has finally caught up to the present. Xiao, we know from the preface and author bio, made it to America after his release and became a writer. At this juncture in the novel, one imagines Ja Feng will find some form of fulfillment after all, teaching art and speaking about his experiences to groups of sincere undergraduates.

But Xiao has a skill for lining up his characters on trajectories that play on our need for narrative cohesion—a success story, a triumph over adversity—only to pull the rug out from under his reader by moving along, as life does, to a new chapter. Ja Feng's last years are as fraught as his first ones outside of prison, but when he returns to China for the last time, the tragedy of his adult life after prison comes into full relief. In the end, success, love and geography are all just illusions, or feel that way, compared to the reality of remembered pain.

—Robert Kotyk

Nox, by Anne Carson Photo: New Directions

Anne Carson
New Directions: New York, 2010.

A reticent professor who taught Classics at McGill for several decades, Anne Carson has found a surprisingly broad audience of devoted and adoring readers who would generally be more likely to read David Sedaris and Chuck Palahniuk than Sophocles and Sappho. Even though she operates in an obscure genre that straddles original poetry and literary translation, Carson's readers elevate her to mythic proportions. I would have never believed a cult could arise from such an assuming writer, but I've met several people willing to tattoo their bodies with her words and travel several hours to attend her readings. In universities she has always maintained her academic credibility, but she has successfully shaken off the potential stigma of an esoteric scholar by bringing poetic voices and individual passions to the forefront of her work.

Nox, Carson's latest and most personal writing yet, powerfully demonstrates her ability to radiate beyond a specialist audience. Two challenges run parallel throughout the book. First, she sets out to lament the death of her brother, a man who removed himself from his family as a young man and rarely connected later in life. Second, Nox documents Carson's struggle to translate an elegy written by the Roman poet Catullus to mark the death of his own brother. Through tracing her own losses, the act of translation becomes unflinchingly personal. As a poet, translator and scholar, Carson wields all her tools in Nox to painfully tie literature and mourning together.

While Nox blurs the lines between translation and original poetry, it is barely presented as a book. Packaged as a "book in a box," each page folds out like an intricate accordion. Words are laid out among family photographs and colourful prints to form a collage of Carson's life and work.

By the last page and picture, the translation of Catullus's elegy is an unfinished blur. Nox provides no conclusion to Carson's own elegy or her translation of someone else's. Coping and poetry both appear impossible tasks, but Carson's genius has never been better demonstrated than in the attempts she makes here.

—Shane Patrick Murphy

Robert Kotyk reads and writes in Montreal. Shane Patrick Murphy co-edits The Dominion's Literature section.

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