Short story collections by writers who normally write novels can offer unique insights into that writer’s longer works, exposing their influences, weaknesses, experiments in style, and thematic obsessions. Such is the case with Boy in the Twilight, which collects several stories written by the Chinese author Yu Hua in the mid-‘90s, during the time that he was coming to international attention with the books Chronicle of a Blood Merchant and To Live (and its subsequent film adaptation by director Zhang Yimou).
Hua’s overseas profile has continued to rise since then. His comic-tragic epic Brothers received a major release from Random House several years ago, he has been penning periodic op-ed essays for The New York Times, and published the acclaimed book of essays China in Ten Words. This short story collection is not a major contribution to his work, but offers an ideal vehicle for assessing what has been translated into English so far.
Boy in the Twilight has been given the misleading subtitle Stories of the Hidden China, implying a sociological examination that isn’t Hua’s concern and playing off a Western fascination with “understanding” China. There is nothing hidden about the world of these stories and Hua’s writing is defined by its plainspoken voice and depiction of quotidian lives.
Hua has been profoundly influenced by Lu Xun, widely considered one of the greatest modern Chinese writers, and equal in stature and influence with early modernists like Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. Hua, more than most of his contemporaries, seeks to adapt Lu Xun’s use of the everyday language and depiction of violence and barbarity to capture modern China. In the introduction to China in Ten Words Yu writes, “Daily life may seem trivial and routine, but in fact it contains a multitude of incidents, at once rich, expansive, and touching. Politics, history, society, and culture, one’s memories and emotions, desires, and secrets—all reverberate there.”
At times, Hua’s violent world, which can approach slapstick levels of scatological vulgarity, seems hardly different from that of Lu Xun’s in the early 1900s. Though China has changed enormously in the past 100 years (indeed, in the past ten years), Hua implies that such clumsy tools of self-assertion and authority have been a working constant from the Republican Era to the Cultural Revolution to the corruption endemic to the regional and national governments today.
At times its not even clear when in the past 50 years the stories are taking place. In the standout story “Friends”, a boy watches an epic fight between two men in his town, wailing on each other with a cleaver and a wet towel. At one point the boy has to pee, describes having to leave the fight and says, “When I finally made it back to the bathhouse they were still engaged in their unremitting struggle, thank God.”
In “Timid as a Mouse”, a milquetoast factory worker finally stands up to a bullying co-worker by holding a cleaver to his neck. The second he relents, the co-worker beats him, “so hard my lungs wheezed.”
One of Hua’s great skills is in exploring the cruelty behind this violent comedy, but occasionally his comic inclinations can get the best of him, as in the absurd farce of “Why Do I Have To Get Married?” and the too-pat filial piety satire “Their Son”. In his best stories, Hua conceives of elegant endings that sneak up on you, but here the punchlines are set-up at the beginning of the joke.
The violence in Hua’s stories is as psychological as it is physical. However, when concentrating on the interior minds of his characters, instead of revealing their thoughts through their actions, he can falter. The most uneven stories in the collection concern infidelity in relationships between men and women. The women are not as well written and, even when the stories are told from a women’s point of view, they can come across as overly deceitful or timid and inscrutable, as though we are actually hearing the voice of their frustrated young husbands and boyfriends.
Perhaps for this same reason, Yu is stronger when writing from the unapologetically self-centered men. In “Mid-Air Collisions”, a group of married friends get together to help out a cheating colleague, reminisce about “those days when there were no women left to bother us” and seem to conclude, without they or Hua ever saying so, that their lives are better off with the wives they curse as tying them down.
As these stories weren’t written at once or intended for one collection, some of the unevenness in this book is inevitable, like a collection of a band’s singles that never quite gel when played back-to-back. But in their construction and the appealing accessibility of Hua’s voice, these are fine stories, if not as finely layered as his best work as a novelist.