Perhat Tursun (author), Darren Byler and Anonymous (translator), The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang, Columbia University Press, 2022. 168 pgs.
A man leaves an office in Ürümqi, and starts walking. The sun has not yet set, but it never really rose in the first place. The city is sinking into a dense fog. We follow the man, whose name we is not revealed. This is how Perhat Tursun’s The Backstreets, translated from the Uyghur by Darren Byler and Anonymous, begins. The unnamed Uyghur narrator takes us on a plotless journey through one night in the Xinjiang capital Ürümqi, where he has moved to for a white-collar job.
Our protagonist just walks and thinks, and his thoughts take the shape of the written words we are reading. The encounters—with people, animals, things—the man has on the road are the initiating objects of existential reflections and recollections. His body moves through a cityscape he is part of, but which also rejects him. This space has been constructed by others and others have given meaning to the power structures this space engenders. By walking, the man shows us these hierarchical architectures from the point of view of the subaltern, the migrant, the racialised other, the colonised.
In his introduction, reflecting on the symbolic meaning of this novel, Byler writes that Tursun “is using fiction to think”, referring to the stream-of-consciousness style of the protagonist’s first-person ramblings documenting life in the big city. This operation of “thinking” through fiction is carried out through the narrative act of walking. The fictional text is the space in which the imagined city and the real city collapse and re-emerge into each other, in a movement of constant reinvention generated by the physical and metaphysical meanderings of the protagonist.
It’s hard not to think of Michel de Certeau and his philosophy of walking in the city. Like those described by the Jesuit scholar, our narrator is a “walker,” an “ordinary practitioner of the city” living below the “threshold of visibility.” Moving through the backstreets of Ürümqi, he’s performing what Certeau would call “pedestrian speech acts”. The paths he traces are spatial stories, a weaving together of places, people, objects, and thoughts. But this man’s walk is not the goal-oriented walk of the local, who knows where he has to be and how to get there, nor the spontaneous, wonder-filled walk of the tourist, absorbed in the novelty of the place. It is the walk of someone who doesn’t belong to the city and yet yearns to be part of it; it is the walk of the othered no-one, invisible and dehumanised. This disoriented and disorienting movement makes up the novel, which is, essentially, an un-narrative map of the (under)world the Uyghur man navigates.
There are no reference points in this man’s nightly roaming:
Even though it was made up of tangible things like buildings, roads, and sewage drains, the big city hadn’t become something I could really see and touch.—The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang
The city’s architecture disappears before his eyes, loses materiality to his touch. He is basically walking in a ghost city, because he himself is a ghost, unseen and untouched. The city makes him something less than human: he “skitters” around the backstreets like the rats skitter around the trash. He is utterly alone. “I don’t know anybody in this strange city, so it’s impossible for me to be friends or enemies with anyone.” This sentence is repeated, like a prayer, nine times throughout the novel. The man’s relation to the people he meets is just that of coexistence, “in the same way that chairs, shelves, a typewriter, or a mop in a corner existed”.
The general feeling of displacement is emphasised by the fog, a prominent presence in the protagonist’s perception of the city. In fact, the city seems to float in the fog, to be swallowed by it. The man feels it is taking possession of his brain, clouding his thoughts and making him lose the sense of direction. Eventually, it becomes part of him, of his body, fills his stomach with “air hunger”. The border between body and fog is no longer recognisable. Materially, it is a fluid substance, a murky liquid that splashes over his body like the sea, and that swallows him “in big gulps”. This liquid murkiness seizes everything:
“The murky condition of the city in the fog, the murky mental condition of my brain, and the ambiguous position of my identity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region seemed to be totally of the same substance; sometimes they mirror each other and sometimes they seep into each other.”
To exist as a Uyghur migrant worker in today’s Ürümqi means having to learn how to make your body porous so it can fluctuate through the fog of state ideology; this is what it means to carry the difficulty of having an identity.
As the novel progresses, so does the sense of disorientation of the protagonist. One thing seems to keep him grounded: a drawer; a drawer in the office where he works, the only thing he is allowed to claim as his own, the repository of his existence as a piece of the well-oiled state machine that sees him only in virtue of his contribution to production.
Who is this man, ultimately, then? We don’t know how he looks, we don’t know his name (nobody in the city calls him by it). Even he miswrites his own name, in a letter to his office in which he renounces being assigned a personal room. He is disappeared in the everyday workings of an alien city, his sense of self dissipated even in the words that make up his name:
If my identity could have been changed by changing a few words, I would have exchanged those words with other, similar words every day without end.—The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang
We know very little about this man’s personal story. He grew up in a rural Xinjiang village, went to study in Beijing, and eventually moved to Ürümqi for work. His mute sister was married off at a young age to a much older man. His older brother also disappeared, perhaps following a woman he had fallen for. His mother used to bring him along, as a child, through the night streets of the city, looking for her husband, afraid to find him, drunk and passed-out, in the irrigation channels. His alcoholic father’s breath smelled of candy, a scent that recurs in the story as an olfactory symbol of cherished childhood memories (“I wanted to fall asleep in that smell, and I hoped to see the city I imagined from it in my dreams. But that mysterious city never appeared”).
In fact, our protagonist has an “oversensitive” sense of smell, due to a sinus disorder developed in his youth. His nightly roaming is guided by the many odours of the city (of burning trash, of urine from a public toilet, of rotten food) as well as olfactory memories that come up in his ramblings (the candy-scented liquor his father used to drink, the turnip breath of his sister, the stinky-shoe stench of his student dorm room). These olfactory objects bring our narrator a sense of meaningfulness, and anchor him to reality (“These smells have become the only thing that can bring sense into my life.”)
Other than smells, numbers too are objects in which the protagonist finds a sense of situatedness. The man is obsessed by numbers, by the secret meaning that hides behind their serendipitous or ominous manifestations. They represent an ordering principle, a language of beauty (“The beauty of a person is actually the beauty of their dimension”) in a city that is difficult to navigate with words. Eventually, this obsession is directed toward the search of a specific number, a street number, a point on a map that is yet to be found. As the search progresses, the man’s consciousness gradually fades (“I had already lost the very concept of my identity”), while the city shapeshifts (“the houses on both sides of the street seemed to shrink and be transformed into nests of rats”). Eventually he finds the number he was looking for, and a voice is finally calling him by his name…
The Backstreets is a symbolic literary journey into the past and present of Xinjiang as seen from the eyes (and smelled from the nose) of one of its marginalised inhabitants. The text, like a microscope, enlarges all details and turns them into hallucinatory encounters; like a telescope, it directs our vision to a faraway landscape, but what we are actually seeing is the past (that is, memories). Using walking as a methodological practice, Tursun constructs a psychoanalytical auto-fictional biography of a city at the borders of the Chinese state, showing us the ordinary alienation and the mundane repression Uyghur bodies are subjected to in their everyday life.
Tursun, a celebrated Uyghur writer and poet, has been disappeared into the Xinjiang re-education camp archipelago since 2018. The anonymous translator who worked with Byler to this translation has been disappeared too. The existence of this text in English is a truly luminous event for world literature.
How to cite: De Marchi, Serena. “A Psychoanalytical Auto-fictional Biography of a City: Perhat Tursun’s The Backstreets.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 11 Sept. 2022, chajournal.blog/2022/09/11/backstreets.
Serena De Marchi is a postdoctoral researcher at Stockholm University. She is interested in contemporary Sinophone fiction that plays with memory and history, lived and imagined spaces, narrative bodies.