[Review] “Not Paranormal Thrillers: Bird Talk and Other Stories by Xu Xu” by David W. Landrum

{Written by David W. Landrum, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Translated and with commentary by Frederik H. Green. Bird Talk and Other Stories by Xu Xu: Modern Tales of a Chinese Romantic, Stone Bridge Press, 2020. 224 pgs.

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Xu Xu (1908-1980) was a Chinese novelist, poet, literary critic, and journalist. His status in the Chinese-speaking world is considerable. Some of his stories are iconic, all are popular; his works have been made into films and adapted for the stage. But, until now, they have not been translated and made available to English-speaking readers. Bird Talk and Other Stories is translated by Frederik H. Green, a professor of Chinese at San Francisco University. This excellent and highly readable translation opens the works of a fascinating writer to the Anglophone readers for the first time, making his longer tales and short stories available and also providing an enlightening biography of the author, a sketch of the literary and political world from which he wrote and a critical assessment of the stories included in the book—though the bulk of the volume consists of the stories themselves.

Xu Xu’s tales have been termed “exotic” by critics (Green uses the term in his own assessment of Xu’s writings). His stories are populated with ghosts, spices, characters who speak with birds, quirky female figures who seem to have magical powers and who see visions or who are telepaths. The exotic characters are always female.

What struck me as a reader is the skill of Xu as a storyteller—or maybe I should say, his velocity as a storyteller. His stories fizz with energy from the beginning to end. The basic elements of story that we all learn in literature classes—plot, character, setting, narration—all work together to propel his writing from the opening lines to the climax and the denouement. The energy of his tales never lags. The exotic features that are often part of them intrigue and mystify the reader, deepening the allure of each fictional endeavour with this unusual and paranormal dimension.

An example of this can be found in his most well-known and widely read tale, “Ghost Love.” In this story, a man meets a woman who insists she is a ghost. At first, he thinks she is deluded. She addresses him as “Human” and insists he address her as “Ghost.” Despite his disbelief, he humours her. He hopes to make her see her delusion by asking her questions: if she is a ghost, how is it that she smokes? Why does she want him to escort her through dangerous areas of town to where she lives? Where does she live? Doesn’t she know that there is no such thing as a ghost?

Their acquaintance continues. The narrator falls in love with her. She will not return his love for a simple reason: she is a ghost, he is a human. She disappears one day. He finds the house to which she had once taken him. The owners tell him a woman rented a room from him but died two years ago of tuberculosis. The narrator eventually sees her again in a public place. “Why can’t you just let me be? Why do you have to drag me out of the grave and into this world?” (p. 56). They talk more. She tells him she was a revolutionary when she lived. She assassinated people, broke out of jails, escaped being shot, crossed deserts, fled danger by boarding steamships; she is also Jewish, born to a Jewish mother and a Chinese father. She admits she loves him but tells him this love cannot be and finally vanishes entirely from his life. The heart-broken narrator wonders, “Where in the world will I ever see her again?” (p. 66).

The narrative of the story carries the reader along—no high-speed chases, shoot-outs, steamy sex scenes, or any of the devices modern writers depend on today to hold a reader’s interest. It is a story of relationship, of human love, puzzled determination and morality.

The other tales in the book are similarly built around the relationship of the narrator (always male) with a woman who is in some way unique, unusual and supernaturally connected. The woman in the story will display exoticism of some sort. “The Jewish Comet”, for example, centres on a woman who is a Jewish spy and an anti-fascist resistance fighter, “The All-Soul Trees” is about a young woman troubled by spirits, and  in “When Ah Heung Came to Gousing Road”, a former professional dancer who now works as a servant steals her mistress’s husband and, almost magically, sets up in business three misfits who are smitten by her.

The stories are not paranormal thrillers in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King or Mariko Koike. They are explorations of the human spirit—of love, longing, desire, affection, morality and what it means to be a human being. Perhaps the most poignant of the tales is the title story, “Bird Talk.” It centres on a young woman who is shunned in her village as a dolt too stupid to learn anything. An educated man who comes visiting tries to teach her mathematics. When she goes to his back garden where he tutors her, the birds flock there in large numbers and sing. She whistles to them in response. He listens and is fascinated by what he sees: “The sounds she was making were beautiful. They neither sounded like the trilling of birds, nor did they sound like singing” (p. 99). The birds seem to understand her and respond.

The scholar finds out more: despite her inability to do maths, write or cook, the young woman can understand poetry remarkably well. The two of them study poems together. The narrator falls in love with her and they leave her tiny village for Shanghai to be married. He leaves her at a Buddhist convent while he takes care of the arrangements. While there she reads and memorises the Heart Sutra (one of the sacred texts of Buddhism), understands it fully and is enraptured by it. Soon the narrator realises that the girl has at last found a place of beauty, serenity, and purity—and a place where her sense of the lovely (the same impulse in her that enabled her to understand bird talk and that drew her to his garden at dawn) can be fully realised. He leaves her there to live her life out as a nun. The story is an exploration of the gentleness, beauty, and transcendent nature of the human spirit.

The book’s foreword and afterword and the introductory notes to each story are enlightening and informative. Xu Xu’s life was as dramatic and poignant as some of his stories are. The commentary Frederik H. Green provides helps the reader to better understand and appreciate the political, literary, and cultural dimensions of the writing. We are indebted to him for these fine translations and for his rich commentary on the stories of Xu Xu. It is my fervent hope that Xu Xu will be more widely known and read in the English-speaking world thanks to this remarkable book.

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David W. Landrum teaches Literature at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA. His poetry, fiction, and literary criticism have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Twentieth-Century Literature, Mosaic, Studies in Philology, and Italian Quarterly.

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