I first became aware of Can Xue reading her stories published in Conjunctions. My friend, the jazz writer Ben Ratliff, was working at Henry Holt at the time, and he sent me a copy of her book The Embroidered Shoes. I became hooked, and went on to read the Northwestern University Press edition of Old Floating Cloud. I’ll never forget encountering for the first time the novella Yellow Mud Street: the descriptions of filth and decrepitude, and the larger-than-life Doctor Wang. The novella seemed to be a veiled political commentary, but it was much more than that: a crazy, surreal work that could be compared to an abstract painting.
New Directions has a long history of publishing Chinese literature. James Laughlin began ND in 1936 at the instigation of Ezra Pound, who was fascinated with Chinese culture. Then, in the sixties and seventies, New Directions published Kenneth Rexroth’s famous translations of ancient Chinese poets. David Hinton’s translations of the Chinese ancients are also crown jewels of the New Directions list. Bei Dao and Xi Chuan are among the most important of our contemporary poets. And in terms of fiction, we’ve had great success publishing the Chinese authors Ah Cheng, Mu Xin, and Qian Zhongshu.
In 2003, Karen Gernant sent Barbara Epler—then our Editor in Chief, now our Publisher—a collection of Can Xue’s stories that she’d translated with Chen Zeping. “The Chinese writer Can Xue has asked me to approach you with her work,” Karen wrote. We had just published the Japanese author Yoko Tawada’s Where Europe Begins, and Yoko encouraged us to publish the collection. Susan Sontag was also recommending authors to us, and she admired Can Xue’s writing a lot. Once we made an offer and signed contracts, the editing began and the stories’ order needed to be decided: the title story, “Blue Light in the Sky,” would begin the collection, and “Mosquitoes and Mountain Ballads,” the fabulous short story about the demise of Third Uncle with the swarming of mosquitoes, would end it.
Editing Blue Light in the Sky was one of my most rewarding experiences while working at New Directions, and I was really thrilled to receive an email from Can Xue recently saying she thinks it is one of her best works ever published. The biggest challenge for me in editing the translation was latching on to the style and hearing the voice. I might be wrong, but I think Can Xue emphasizes mood and story over highly stylized prose. Her voice is deliberately flat. Western literature draws on sources with which we’re all familiar: the Bible, Shakespeare, Homer, Dante. Can Xue’s biggest influences are writers like Kafka, Dante, Goethe, and Calvino, though I’ve read arguments elsewhere that her writing is rooted in emotion and landscape. I believe this is true. Her writing always conveys the constant threat of chaos lurking beneath. That said, the challenge of my job as editor was to see the arc in each story and make sure the sentences were correct, that the paragraphs flowed, and that the arc emerged clearly in each of the stories. As I said before, Can Xue’s stories are to me like modern abstract paintings, demanding the reader’s engagement in that particular way, and as an editor, I tried to help bring that out in the translation.
Some of my favorite stories in Blue Light in the Sky are “The Bizarre Wooden Building,” “Night in the Mountain Village,” and “My Brother.” “The Lure of the Sea,” however, may be my top favorite. One afternoon about three years ago, I was watching my six-year-old son and a group of his friends in Prospect Park (in Brooklyn, where I lived at the time). After a soccer game, the group of boys collapsed exhausted on a blanket. It was a hot day, and for some reason, I began to tell them the story of “The Lure of the Sea” with as much detail as I could. The kids were completely enraptured. I went on to tell them other Can Xue stories, and the afternoon passed quickly. It makes complete sense that Can Xue’s stories (with their fable-like quality and unsettling unpredictability) would mesmerize readers and listeners of any age.
I’ve been happy to see Can Xue’s reputation grow in the United States with more publications. A few years ago, right after Yale published her novel Five Spice Street, Can Xue gave an entertaining reading at the 92nd Street Y with Isabel Allende. Hundreds of Allende’s devoted fans swarmed the event, and it was satisfying to me that they were exposed to Can Xue, this wonderful author who writes like no one else. Can Xue is truly one of a kind and deserves to be more widely read. As Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions and a novelist in his own right, said, “Can Xue possesses one of the most glorious, vivid, lyrical, elaborate, poignant, hellacious imaginations on the planet.” We are very proud to have Can Xue’s Blue Light in the Sky on our list.
“Do people living on the top floor of a thirty-story building worry at bedtime?” I used to ponder this question frequently. I live in an office in the bustling city center. It’s the mailroom, with a table, three folding chairs, and a bed. I receive and dispatch letters at the table; I sleep in the bed at night. I keep watch over this thirty-story apartment block, where all the people know me: they call me Old Zhu.
These familiar faces come and go in front of me every day: they’re all rather dreary people. Even the children walk as if they were adults—heads drooping, backs weighed down and bent by their book bags. After they’ve left and walked off into the distance, I feel liberated.
Once at midnight I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and took the elevator to the top floor. I stood in the narrow corridor. There were six households, each door tightly closed. I looked out the window: the city below was flickering with light, like lots of fireflies hidden in a thicket. It was truly a wonderland. When I was about to go back downstairs, a door on the right opened slowly, and a young person looked out. He wasn’t the least bit surprised to see me (at midnight!). Indeed, he took stock of me with reproachful eyes (I don’t know what he was dissatisfied about). He was about thirty years old, Ma by name. His gaze was clouded, stagnant. Although I saw him every day in the mailroom, for some reason I still was a little afraid. I did my best to squeeze out a smile, and said hurriedly, “Ah, excuse me, I have to go downstairs. ’Bye!”
“Stay where you are!!” he ordered.
He was now standing completely outside his door. In the corridor light, he looked excited. He was wearing only undershorts and an undershirt. Although it was early summer, the draft in this building was plenty cold.
“Now that you’re here, you have to keep me company,” he said bluntly, taking a few steps toward me.
“Can’t you sleep? Are you worried about something? You’re feeling bad even living in a transcendent place like this?”
I took out a pack of cigarettes and handed one to him, but he turned it down.
“There’s something scary going on.” He squeezed out the sentence a word at a time. Suddenly, he blew his stack, “How can anyone live in this kind of place? There’s no way to sleep! There’s just endless torment!”
A gust of wind blew past, chilling him so that he shrank into himself, but he persisted in standing there. I knew he was a bachelor, and I’d never seen him bring a girlfriend back, so I suggested that we go into his room for a while. In any case, I couldn’t sleep, either. Looking at me hesitantly, he was unwilling to open the door. Instead, he said again, “Scary! Scary!”
“Try talking about it. You’ll feel better if you talk about what’s on your mind,” I said sympathetically, patting him on the shoulder.
The moment my hand touched his shoulder, he jumped back a step, and looked at me in alarm.
“I don’t like it when people touch me! But, anyhow, you can go in and have a look at the scary thing.”
Facing me, he backed up, retreated to the door, stuck out a hand, and opened it. His manner made me uncomfortable.
“Come on in, come on in.” Standing to one side of the door, he grabbed me and pushed me inside with one hand.
It was a two-room apartment. The light wasn’t on. The room where we were standing was probably the one he used for a dining room. Behind it was the bedroom. The darkness was filled with the smells of leftover rice and other dishes. Ma said that the light was burned out, took out a flashlight, and shone it randomly a few times on the ceiling. I sat down on a chair that he had casually kicked over to me. I felt really oppressed, but I also felt a rising curiosity. This person had been so excruciatingly terrified in the middle of the night. He couldn’t have called me in just for fun. He stood for a while in front of the dining table, and told me that right then he didn’t have the nerve to show me the scary thing: he’d already gone without sleep for two nights, and he was beat. Now that I was here, I might as well serve as his guard for a while to prevent anything from happening while he slept in the back room. With that, he went into the other room, and made a special point of bolting the door. I noticed that the light in his room went dark, then light again. This happened three times, as though he were signaling someone. Then everything was silent.
What garbage. I was sitting here like an idiot in this filthy room, while he was sleeping in the bedroom. Sure, I could leave: this young guy just couldn’t sleep at night and had suddenly called me in on a whim. I couldn’t take this too seriously. Although that’s what I was thinking, I still sat there motionless as if possessed by something. Probably the guy inside his room had figured I wouldn’t leave. Damn. How could he have guessed? I stood up and stretched, then walked over to the window and opened it to let the breeze blow on my face. I looked down: how strange, everything was grayish white. I couldn’t distinguish anything. It was absolutely different from what I’d seen from the window in the corridor. I didn’t get a good feeling from this grayish-white scene. I shut the window at once, and retreated to the chair. I understood a little: probably people living so high up felt uneasy when they looked at the night scene below. No wonder Young Ma was losing sleep. I pressed my ear against his bedroom door, and listened for a while. He was snoring. It seemed I actually should leave. I circled around the table lightly, but the sound I made opening the door woke him up. The bedroom door opened wide, and the light was also on . . .
“Stop!” he said from behind me. “Come over here!”
I turned around and went into his bedroom. His bed was even messier than a doghouse. Signs of insomnia were everywhere: the blanket was drooping down to the floor, and next to the pillow were two apples, each with one bite gnawed out of it. There was even a shoe on the bed. He gestured, indicating that I should follow him to the rear of the bureau. Standing in the corner was a large metal pail filled with dirty clothes.
“Move this pail out of the way,” he ordered, “and then look down.”
I bent over and did as I was told. Under the pail was a hole. I took a look, and immediately sprang back. Drained of strength, I sat down on the floor. In a split second, I had the profound feeling that I was a weak-willed person. The saying “hanging by a hair” kept going through my mind. The vision I saw was too difficult to describe. In a word, I saw the inner structure of this large building—from the thirtieth floor straight down to the first floor. But the situation was extremely critical: this multi-storied building’s collapse was imminent. Now my legs had gone mushy: it was impossible for me to even walk out of this apartment. I had definitely lost my wits; otherwise, I should have figured out that what I saw was certainly a hallucination. What I saw was absolutely impossible.
When I got over my dizziness, I discovered that Ma was sticking his head into the hole to take a careful look. After a while, he turned back to me, and shouted, “Ah, this sort of agony is like a saw! Who can put up with it?! Ah, this grisly thing: yiiiiiikes!” He pulled a long face, calling to mind a skull. A whispering sound came from the floor, and the floor began wobbling. I shut my eyes, waiting for that inescapable thing to come. I waited for a while: the shaking continued lightly. If you didn’t pay attention, you couldn’t feel it. Still bent over on the floor, Young Ma was nattering—as if he were talking to a lover down there: “Why aren’t you the least bit relaxed? You strut back and forth like a slut. What the hell are you doing? Do you think I can’t leave you? It was clear to me quite a while ago that you intended to block my way out. Humph! What the hell: you’re making that sound again, just like an echo in a graveyard. Has the ceiling on the fifteenth floor started to collapse? Ah, I am truly worried . . .”
I gradually got hold of myself. I figured I’d take advantage of his talking to the monster in the cave or hole, and just leave without a word. I walked lightly toward the door, but he was too quick: you couldn’t slip anything past him.
“Stop! Do you just come when you want to, and leave when you want to?” He twisted his neck around and spoke to me gravely, but then he became fed up quite quickly. With a wave of his hand, he said, “Hurry off! Hurry off! I’m not in the mood to deal with you.”
As the elevator was descending, I thought doomsday was approaching, and I actually began sobbing. I couldn’t think of anything at the moment—not my son in the countryside, not my retirement pension, not my bankbook hidden in a hole in the wall, not the fifty yuan the resident on the thirteenth floor had borrowed from me, not anything that used to be important to me. With undivided attention, I was waiting for the ultimate tragic roar. But the elevator was just the same as always—going down with just a slight sound. The indicator light reminded me that I’d reached the first floor. I entered the office restlessly, flopped down on the bed, and went to sleep.
The morning rush hour came all too quickly: one after another, people went past the office window, and in surprise, they stuck their heads in to take stock of me. Their little heads looked a lot like camels’ heads. I went on sleeping, not paying attention to much at all: who cared what they were saying?
The worst thing was my insomnia. The scenes I saw that night were too terrifying. That hole came all the way through to my office. Maybe that guy named Ma was looking at me right this minute. Was there anything he hadn’t seen? I smacked my lips. Was there any meaning in life? The people living in this large building were all muddleheaded. The only clearheaded one was a noctivagous freak. When we die here, we aren’t even aware where the death comes from. Is there anything more tragic? Yet, I can’t leave this place. My son is waiting in the countryside for me to get him to the city. My hometown is on the sands of the Gobi, where the sunset’s afterglow is splendid but you have to walk miles to find a tree. Every time I write my son, I admonish him not to go outside for anything, lest he be buried by a sandstorm. I tossed and turned in bed like a biscuit being fried.
I stayed in bed for three days. On the table, the newspapers and books delivered by the mailman were piled up like a mountain. The residents looked in on me from the window—daring to be angry, but not daring to say anything. Let them look. These fools couldn’t find anyone to replace me. Who else could keep watch here twenty-four hours a day for rock-bottom wages? It was because they knew this much that they didn’t dare reprimand me. Now, even if they fired me, I wouldn’t care; maybe it would even be a way to break away front this building. Otherwise, wouldn’t I be buried under it? The afternoon of the third day, I noticed that the residents were beginning to whisper to each other. I guessed they couldn’t take this situation any longer. At this point, I suddenly felt sentimentally attached to this building once more. I’d worked here twenty years. Everyone knew me. Almost every day, I rode the elevator upstairs to keep an eye on things. I didn’t go into anyone’s apartment, just stood in the corridor taking in the city landscape. Downstairs, I also sorted the mail, and arranged the letters on the window glass for people to pick up. I read the name and address on each letter very carefully, and memorized them: they were lined up in my brain. If a stranger showed up, I would detain him and ask all kinds of questions to get him to give himself away. This was also a good way to show my authority. From the bottom of my heart, I was content with this kind of life. I had this feeling right up until three days ago. So now how was it that everything had changed? Was it because my brain had been muddled that night when Young Ma had enticed me into his home on the top floor and told me to look at the weird scene from his apartment? Probably that was a deception he had contrived. How could such a grotto appear on the thirtieth floor? For all I knew, he’d taken advantage of my not thinking clearly and played a mind game; he had somehow caused my brain to produce this wacky picture. Thinking this, I sat up with a start. Just as I sat up, it so happened that Young Ma walked into my office. His appearance had changed a lot: he was wearing a business suit, a gaudy floral tie, and spanking new shoes. His hair was gleaming. At first sight, I thought it must be his brother!
“You old fart, you actually pretended to be sick and wasted a hell of a lot of time!” He smacked me hard on the back.
“You’re all dressed up. Do you have a date?”
“Sure thing.” He whispered to me: “None of us has much time. We have to enjoy life while we can.”
All of a sudden, he thought of something, and glancing at his watch, he quickly turned around. In grand high spirits, he headed for the street. As soon as he left, I went back to my normal work, and the apartment residents were naturally very relieved.
It was the middle of the night before Young Ma returned from his carousing. Somebody had torn his new suit, and there were four purple fingerprints on his right cheek. One eye was swollen. When he came in, he collapsed on my bed, and kept saying in a tear-laden voice, “I’m a loser, a hopeless loser. I might as well die, might as well just die . . .” Taking in his appearance, I recalled the scene when he had bent over on the floor and conversed with that grotto. I sensed something vaguely.
“Will you go with me to look at that cave?” he suddenly asked in an absolutely composed voice.
As we rode the elevator, his hands took turns thumping his head. He was also stamping his feet in desperation, as if he were itching to stamp out a hole that he could drop through. I left the elevator with him and went into his bedroom again. I was really surprised to see that it was now as neat as a pin. But he didn’t value his work: he flopped down on the bed, kicking off his shoes. The shoes fell onto the bed.
“Go on over and move that pail again. Take another look,” he bantered, his hands pillowing his head.
I walked over to the place with the deep hole next to the bureau, and tried to pick up the metal pail. It never occurred to me that this pail would have put down roots: it couldn’t be moved. I looked carefully at the lower edge of the pail, but I didn’t see anything like screws riveting it there. What the hell had happened to it? I kicked it a few times, but it still wouldn’t be moved. It covered the hole beneath it very tightly.
“You never guessed,” he sneered, “that the hole has a strong magnetic force which has gripped the metal pail. It can’t be moved just with the little strength that humans have. It’s only when I take a devil-may-care attitude that the magnetic force vanishes of its own accord—like last time. But now I’m too much on edge, so it rejects me. Now you know: it isn’t any comfort; it can’t console people. This word ‘comfort’ is too philistine.”
I thought he was completely mixed up: this deep scary hole, this monster’s den that frightened him so much his face was drained of color, in truth was a comfort to him. When you came up against this kind of thing, how should you deal with it? Hadn’t it also reeled me in? He was solemn, watching me dejectedly.
“Where did you go today for entertainment?” I wanted to distract him.
“Where could I go except over to my parents’ place? This morning, a passing whim took hold of me—to start afresh. That was fine for the first half hour, but then I betrayed myself: I don’t know why, but I started fighting with my parents. They thrashed me within an inch of my life. They said they had to ‘teach me a lesson.’ Later on, the neighbors called the police. Since I was the one who’d been beaten and lost face, the police couldn’t very well take me into custody. If they had, I’d be in jail now. I’ve been lying here giving it a lot of thought: how did I turn bad? I thought the starting point was this hole. Every time I look at the scene in the hole, courage flows through every pore of my body; I’m as strong as an ox. But then, it’s merely a hallucination. As soon as I come up against something, I turn into a black turtle. The views in the hole give the turtle the courage of a lion—a fruitless valor. Can you understand this kind of thing?”
“No, but it’s really interesting.”
“Sure, it’s interesting to stand on the dry shore and make sarcastic remarks to someone who’s fallen into the water. Come around again tonight. Now I need to calm down.”
That night, I went up to the top floor again, but Young Ma’s door was tightly closed. The third time I rapped on the door, the door next to it opened, and a man whose eyes were exploding with fury hurled abuse at me. He said I was just like Young Ma: we were both pederasts. He said if we went on disturbing people like this, the residents of this building would never have any peace.
“When I saw that you were pretending to be sick, I knew you were in cahoots with the guy next door,” he said fiercely.
I couldn’t do anything but return to my place and go to sleep. I woke up twice more during the night, both times startled awake by shouting. Someone in the building was shouting for help. Both times, I acted reflexively: I ran out to the street, but then I just saw the building standing securely in front of me. After this happened twice, I was wiped out. I was too tired to respond again to the shouts for help, desperate though they were. I just went on sleeping.
It’s been more than six months since all of this happened. Now, Young Ma still goes past my office every day. He’s changed again—back to the way he always was: lazy and sluggish, careless with his appearance. When he sees me, he looks down. When I see him, I turn my head away. The two of us understand each other too well: we’re just like two enemies all too familiar with the same machinations.
Translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.
First published as a New Directions Paperbook (NDP1039) in 2006. Reprinted by permission of New Directions.
Can Xue (Deng Xiaohua), whose pseudonym in Chinese means both the dirty snow that refuses to melt and the purest snow at the top of a mountain, is one of China’s preeminent authors. Her works in English include the short-story collections Blue Light in the Sky and Vertical Motion, both translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, and the novels Five Spice Street (trans. Gernant and Zeping) and The Last Lover, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen.
Declan Spring is Vice President and Senior Editor at New Directions Publishing. He has been working there since 1991.