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The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of…

por Lu Xun, Lu Xun (Autor)

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Lu Xun is arguably the greatest writer of modern China, an is considered by many to be the founder of modern Chinese literature. This new translation presents some of Lu Xun's best known short stories, including 'The Real Story of Ah-Q' and 'Diary of a Madman'.
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Even strongly ideological authors know that in order to reach a popular audience, their political ideas have to be layered underneath palatable narratives and relatable characters. Great writers like Steinbeck or Zola did this well; the mark of hacks like Ayn Rand is their inability to let their messages flow smoothly from the story and to say what they mean without shouting at the reader. Lu Xun set himself a real challenge with his work here - short stories can be an even more difficult medium than novels to make political points, just because each story has to spend proportionately more time on character development and so forth. Not that it's impossible - Varlam Shalamov's short stories in Kolyma Tales are in a way far more effective at conveying the grim brutality of the gulag system than Solzhenitsyn's more famous works precisely because Shalamov's points seem to emerge from the stories far more organically - but often the author has to hope that it's the subtle shared connections between stories that make the difference rather than any single moment within an individual story, the overall themes emerging in the manner of the rhythm of the clacking wheels of a train on a long journey.

Lu's efforts succeed here in exactly that way, the cumulative effects growing stronger with each story. He wrote these stories in the 1910s and 20s as China was taking some halfhearted steps to awaken itself from its centuries-long torpor, and lurking in the background of just about every one of them are some consistent themes: the gargantuan ineptitude of government bureaucracy, the humiliating obsequiousness of the powerless towards the powerful, the pathetic poverty of village life, the absurdities of slavish devotion to Confucianism, the suffocating incuriosity of the Chinese people, and the necessity of radical changes at all levels of society if China were to ever start addressing them. I always respect authors who are willing to make bold criticisms of their own societies, because nothing is artistically easier or more temptingly lucrative than to simply give people what's familiar and flattering to their own prejudices. But these short stories, which are often very funny in their amused chronicling of universal human foibles, are incredibly uncomplimentary to basically every aspect of what at the time was a catatonic and stagnant culture, and Lu deserves real credit for his Nikolai Gogol-esque portraits that are instantly relatable even as they depict people at their worst and least likable.

The Penguin Classics edition I have groups three different short story collections together: Outcry, Hesitation, and Old Stories Retold, with the title story halfway through the first collection. Each tale has innumerable tiny details that make them feel much larger than their actual half-dozen-ish pages, odd names like "Seven-Pounds" and loving descriptions of dirt and filth giving the impression that the reader is peering in at a succession of tiny fishbowls, the characters stuck swimming in tiny circles like firmly oppressed goldfish. Sometimes the townsfolk suffer crushing tragedies, sometimes minor misfortunes; Lu always finds a way to keep focus on the "idiocy of rural life", and yet he never puts any polemics or multi-page rants on the page, merely gentle irony at how funny all this senselessness is.

Ah-Q's story itself is one of the best examples. Its eponymous hero is an Ignatius P. Reilly-type loser who suffers endless humiliations yet always finds "moral victories" at the end of each one. He does menial odd jobs throughout town, always messing things up while thinking himself far above whatever he's doing, leaping from blunder to blunder and desperately searching for people even weaker than he is to bully so he can feel better about himself, until he has a final encounter with the authorities that he can't cringe his way out of. Apparently Marxists had a complicated relationship with the part where Ah-Q decides to be a revolutionary but then sleeps through his chance to join them; I personally thought that his poor luck there was a perfect complement to his general cowardice. "Village Opera" is another one of my favorites from the first collection for the way it folds a funny criticism of Chinese opera into an evocative example of childhood nostalgia, or "A Small Incident", where a man involved in a rickshaw accident ponders his own callousness and willingness to (literally) trample over other people to get where he needs to.

The stories are even stronger in Hesitation, the second collection, I think because Lu had gotten more experienced but also because they're slightly longer and give him more room to work in. "The Loner" is a long and moving look at a curiously arms-length friendship "bracketed at its beginning and end by funerals", with both the narrator and his somewhat distant friend's lives going through ups and down of fortune until fate decides to taketh away from the friend as surely as it had giveth to him. It's quite sad, but the next one, "In Memoriam", is by far the saddest, and possibly the best, of the whole lot. Its depiction of the breakdown of two people's love and "poor but happy" marriage under the stresses of their terrible poverty and the weight of society's outdated norms is heartbreaking. But Lu is also able to throw in hilarious bits like the guy in "The Divorce" who's trying to sell "an 'anus-stopper': used by the ancients in burials, to stop up the anus of the deceased", which keeps the whole thing from getting too gloomy.

Interestingly, the preface to the 30s-era third collection "Old Stories Retold" mentions that it took by far the longest to write. It's a mixture of retellings of well-known episodes from Chinese mythology with historical fiction vignettes. One of the best moments is at the end of "Gathering Ferns", where a woman, who had inadvertently caused the starvation deaths of two brothers who were on a sort of hunger strike against a king they disliked, tells a made-up story about a magic deer they had offended to the other townspeople to absolve herself of blame: "'Heaven was so disgusted by their greed, he told the roe deer to stop coming. They deserved to starve! I had nothing to do with it - they brought it on themselves, the greedy wretches.' Her audiences always sighed as she concluded her story – the worry lifting from their bodies. Now, if ever they thought of the brothers, they were hazy figures, squatted at the foot of a cliff, their white-bearded mouths gaping open to devour the deer." It's a great example of the desperate urge to avoid responsibility people have, and how eager we all are to swallow anything as long as it has a moral that fits our prejudices.

The collection and the book closes with "Bringing Back the Dead", a funny sendup of Daoism which wryly recasts the myth of Job as a joking discussion between philosopher Zhuangzi and the God of Fate that ends with a very confused, helpless resurrected corpse. I was struck by the irony of Lu spending all this time writing about China's religious heritage and symbols of the past when his main literary goal had been to show how absurd China's decadence and stagnation was, but I suppose it makes sense that only someone who really loved the country, senile mythology, ideology, and all, could have had the proper perspective to write such scathing takedowns of its effects on people. To use an American example, it reminded me a bit of the story of the Duke and the Dauphin in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, where only someone who actually cared about the country could make a story of people's ignorance and gullibility so affectionate and amusing. It's easy to see why later reformers and revolutionaries liked his work so much, but though it's unfortunate that this book contains essentially all the fiction he ever wrote since it means there's not any more to read, there's enough great material in here to shame plenty of lesser authors who wrote far more. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
The complete prose works of Lu Xun are rightly counted as among the pinnacles of Chinese modern literature. Collected here, they show the progression of Lu's writings from the start of ther Xinhai revolution to the 30s or so. Highlights include Diary of a Madman - a scathing attack on the blind obedience to traditions that the new intellectuals blamed for China's woes; the title story (The Real Story of Ah-Q), and New Year's Sacrifice. To gain a better understanding of twentieth-century China and its history is to read Lu Xun. ( )
  xuebi | May 30, 2014 |
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Lu Xunautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculated
Xun, LuAutorautor principaltodas as ediçõesconfirmado
Li, YiyunPosfácioautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
Lovell, JuliaTradutorautor secundárioalgumas ediçõesconfirmado

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Lu Xun is arguably the greatest writer of modern China, an is considered by many to be the founder of modern Chinese literature. This new translation presents some of Lu Xun's best known short stories, including 'The Real Story of Ah-Q' and 'Diary of a Madman'.

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