3/21/21

&: Ruined City reading guide, second part


This is an attempt to write about Howard Goldblatt's translation of Ruined City 废都 by Jia Pingwa 贾平凹, maybe notes for something more formal, maybe just a guide for myself to find stuff later, or maybe an excuse to pull out parts I like.

The first part is here.

Like I said there, this is also just something to do, a way to stay focused while reading along. I sometimes feel like when I'm not translating a book that I don't read it close enough.

This part has more ragging on the translation, too, if you're into that. I think Goldblatt tends to use very stiff, archaic language that deadens the dialogue, but I have a lot of sympathy. Since I'm only going to get one English translation of this book in my lifetime, I think criticism is fair. And I have my own translations of Jia Pingwa that you can read for yourself, so some of this criticism will hopefully help improve my own work.

Page 103 to 113. Gossip as foreplay.

This section, I believe, is the first time we hear about Zhuang Zhidie’s side business, running a bookstore.

He returns home and finds his wife and Hong Jiang 洪江 going through the store’s paperwork. It was a good month, with the arrival of a new Jin Yong 金庸 novel. But they've been unable to get in any copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover, the bestseller at the city’s other shops.

Hong Jiang gives Zhuang some advice:
"After running the bookstore for a year, I have a pretty good picture of the market. Writing books is not as good as selling them, and editing books is better than both. Many bookstores now edit their own books, either by buying a publishing house outright or by printing books illegally. Chapbooks are all about sex and violence, and there's no need for proofreading. With print runs in the millions, those people are getting rich. You know Xiaoshunzi on Zhuquemen Street, a stinking little shit who can barely read. Well, he hired some people to cut and paste erotic passages from other works and put out a book that made him a hundred and fifty thousand. Now he rides around in a taxi and eats exotic seafood at the Tangcheng Restaurant every day."
"I know all that," Zhuang said. "But that's not what we should be doing." / "I knew you'd say that," Hong said. "But there's something Shimu and I have talked about. A bookseller produced a martial arts novel by someone named Liu De. They're having trouble selling it and are offering it to us at half-price. I was thinking we could take it and change the cover. We can give the author's name as Jing Yong. I'm sure we'll make a bundle.
A couple interesting things here…

We once again return to the new position of the artist in the postsocialist era. Hong Jiang chides Zhuang for wanting to keep secret his role in running the bookstore, telling him that wénrén 文人 doing business is perfectly fine.

The look into the world of bookselling at the time is quite fascinating. This was a time when books were indeed big business. It was a confluence of several factors—opening up to the outside world, a massive audience, relaxation of censorship, excitement around culture. I highly recommend Consuming Literature: Best Sellers and the Commercialization of Literary Production in Contemporary China by Shuyu Kong, which goes into more about the book business and Jia Pingwa’s own ventures in particular. When Zhuang Zhidie is talking about book sales and people selling out by including “cut and paste erotic passages” he might as well be talking about Ruined City.

Howard Goldblatt’s use of “chapbooks” strikes me as odd, but it might just be me. The original says xiǎocèzi 小册子. I always think of a chapbook as a step above a zine, which is probably what these were, I guess. These are books printed—that’s made clear by Hong Jiang—with a shūhào 书号 (equivalent to an ISBN, required to sell a book legally), suggesting that “cheap paperbacks” might be more descriptive than “chapbooks.”

Some people have described a dìtān wénxué 地摊文学, or a literature of the bookstall. Something like Lady Chatterley's Lover fits in perfect there, especially with the sort of lurid borderline pornographic covers slapped on risque classics… But also Ruined City fit in there, too, especially when people started copy and pasting erotic scenes into it! I haven’t even gotten to the erotic scenes in Ruined City yet, I realize. But there’s one right after this scene, when Zhuang and Niu Yueqing go to bed that night.

Their foreplay is gossip. How fitting! That night, it’s about Wang Ximian's wife and her younger days as a clerk at a department store.
As she went on, she reached out to touch him and found his erection. So she guided him on top of her. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 51 words.] She cried out and curled into a ball.
"So, you couldn't hold out, either," Zhuang said.
So, that’s what I mean by copy and pasting erotic scenes back into Ruined City.

Jia uses the conceit of the author censoring his own work to erase the hot stuff that he never actually wrote. It’s a brilliant way to make a book sexy without having to write out the sex, and the reader automatically slips in whatever’s on their nasty mind…

But anyways, they gossip for a while after that, and Zhuang Zhidie brings up the idea of hiring some help, thinking of Liu Yue.

The next morning, we get more gossip, this time from the dead, as Niu Yueqing’s mother, who is no longer able to tell the living from the ghosts starts sharing underworld gossip. He takes an in-law out to her husband’s grave.

It’s an interesting scene, but I don't have much to say about it.

I’d rather reproduce Zhuang Zhidie’s shopping list, left for him by Niu Yueqing:
...two catties of pork, one cattie of spare ribs, a carp, a tortoise, half a cattie of squid, half a cattie of sea cucumber, three catties of lotus roots, two catties of chives, one cattie of bean pods, one cattie of cowpeas, two catties of tomatoes, two catties of eggplant, two catties of fresh mushrooms, three catties of thick osmanthus liquor, seven bottles of Sprite, three catties of tofu, a half-cattie each of some Korean side dishes, two catties of mutton, one cattie of cured beef, five preserved eggs, one roasted chicken, one roasted duck, half a cattie each of cooked pork liver, pork belly, and smoked sausage. Also, he needed to bring from the Shuangren fu house a bottle of Wuliangye, ten bottles of beer, a pack of peanuts, dried mushrooms and wood ear, a bowl of sticky rice, a sack of red dates, and a handful of rice noodles. In addition, he had to buy a can of peas, a can of bamboo shoots, a can of cherries, a cattie of sausage, two catties of cucumbers, one ounce of thin seaweed, and three ounces of lotus seeds.
One of the many lists in Jia Pingwa’s novels… (How annoying is it to use “cattie” in a modern translation? Have you come across the term anywhere but in a translation from Chinese? What’s wrong with just using jīn 斤? Why not take a jīn as a half kilo and do the conversion? I don’t know.)

So, a lunch party is being planned…

Page 113 to 139. More feet, more gossip, more Britishisms.
At the crack of dawn, he rode over to Zhou Min's house at 8 Ludang Lane. Tang Wan'er was up, working on her hair in front of a mirror. Zhou Min was crouching beneath a grape trellis brushing his teeth. With foam still in his mouth, he was beside himself with joy when he saw Zhuang walk in.
I wonder if we could track down the address there, 8 Ludang Lane, 芦荡巷副字八号... I’m sure it would be easier to poke around on foot, but right now, all I have is Baidu Maps’ street view service.

We can get a general feel for the area. It doesn’t look like it’s changed much since the early 1990s. It feels like the sort of apartment block that Tang Wan'er and Zhou Min might have rented a place in.

But it makes me wonder why Jia decided to include that address.

When Zhuang gets there, he sees Tang Wan’er is wearing the shoes, which she has not told Zhou Min came from his mentor.

Zhuang gives her another gift: one of the bronze mirrors from Zhao Jingwu. He tells her it's from the Kaiyuan 开元 reign of the Tang dynasty, and it suits her, since her surname is Tang.

Zhuang and Tang Wan’er are left alone at the house for just a while too long, and things start to happen...
When he reached out to steady her, she fell into his arms as if on a pulley. He turned her around, and they found each other's lips; they stayed that way for a long time, breathing hard through their noses, as if glued together. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 23 words.]
Zhuang pulled away.
"Wan'er," he said, "I finally have you in my arms. I'm very fond of you."
"I'm fond of you, too," she said, as tears ran down her face. He tenderly reached out to dry them. Then he kissed them away. ... Before they knew it, their hands were roaming over each other's body; soon his hand snaked down, but her skirt was so tight, he could only tug anxiously at the waistband. She stepped back to unhook her skirt, and his hand slipped in; she was wet. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 23 words.]
"I desperately wanted to touch your feet that day when I gave you the shoes."
Chinese literature is not known for forthright descriptions of human sexuality, especially like these, which seem particularly genuine. You can see why—despite in this case the conceit of self-censorship—Ruined City became an unofficial sexual education textbook in the days before porno VCDs and the internet.

Zhuang Zhidie and Tang Wan’er make love. Many words are deleted.

She is amazed that he has taken an interest in her, a common girl from the countryside.

Finally, Zhuang scurries home to start preparing for the party.

I’m missing a few plot points here. A major one is that Zhuang plans to borrow a large sum of money from Wang Ximian to get the fake Jin Yong book printed. That’s the point of the lunch party. But it turns out Wang Ximian is already in Beijing, and his wife has arrived alone.

Also Zhao Jingwu shows up with Liu Yue. Niu Yueqing takes an immediate liking to her.

Much of this section is chit-chat—more gossip!

I feel like one of the failings of Goldblatt’s translation is the way it deals with dialogue. This is always tough. It’s harder to mark out registers in written Chinese, I would say, compared to English. It’s harder, for example, to give a feel for accents since it’s not a phonetic language…

What do I mean, though?
"Don't be in such a hurry. You've just arrived, and you haven't even had time for your sweat to dry. I won't need your help yet."
"You really are a dajie. I'm not a guest here. I was eager to come today precisely because I knew you'd have a house full of guests, and there's work to be done. Otherwise, why am I here, to enjoy the festivities?" Liu said.
The first speaker is Nue Yueqing and the second is Liu Yue. One is a cultured woman from an aristocratic family, and the other is a maid with a primary school education, freshly arrived from the countryside. Why does the register feel so formal for both speakers? In a way, it feels like Niu Yueqing is being more informal here than the translation suggests:
牛月清一把拦了,说:"决不要动手,才来乍到,汗都没退,谁要你忙活?!" 柳月说:"好姐姐,我比不得来的客人,之所以赶着今日来,就是知道人多,需要干活的,要不我凭什么来热闹?!"
Here’s an alternative:
"I don't want you to lift a finger,” Niu Yueqing said. “You just got here. The sweat's still dripping off you from the walk over. Just take it easy!"
"You really do treat me like a younger sister,” Liu Yue said, “but I'm not any more important than your guests. The main reason I was in such a rush to get here today is because I knew you'd have a house full of people. I should be helping out. I didn't come just to enjoy the party!"
I also generally have a problem with Howard Goldblatt’s archaisms. To have someone referred to as, "That little tart" is off putting. I can’t not hear it in a posh British accent. But is there anything to his choice?

First, two definitions: “a woman who dresses or behaves in a way that is considered tasteless and sexually provocative” and, marked as dated, “a prostitute.” The line in the translation is: "’That little tart is mocking me. What have I ever done to her?’" In the original, it’s: “这小肠肚蹄子,倒揶开我了,我可没得罪了她呀!” This isn’t an open-and-shut case, it turns out. We have to unravel that insult—xiǎochángdùtízi 小肠肚蹄子—before we can begin… I’m tempted to just give this one to Goldblatt and move on. But, hmm, I guess 小肠肚蹄子 is from xiǎotízi 小蹄子, “little hoof,” which is used frequently in Dream of Red Mansions 红楼梦 (I was reminded of this by 影响中的创造:贾平凹小说的独异生成, 樊娟). The origin of that phrase might be because of the resemblance between a hoof and a vulva, but that seems unlikely, and it’s probably from some northern dialect (or that’s what my brief research tells me). That doesn’t matter, though, because I’m still not sure what 小肠肚蹄子 means.
《红楼梦》中有多处“小蹄子”及其变形的骂法,王希眠老婆说唐宛儿小肠肚蹄子的说法也有了出处。其实在民间也有用蹄子来形容人的,也可以传达表粗内亲的意思,这里则有嗔怪之意。
So, this suggests the meaning is related to 嗔怪, suggesting less tart and more sulky or ungrateful or generally unpleasant in—with the 蹄子 there—a particularly feminine way. It makes sense, given the next line, dào yékāi wǒ 倒揶开我, “She’s actually mocking me!”

But I got so, so, so far away from the point that “tart” is just an archaic and strange word. But I guess 小肠肚蹄子 is possibly an equally archaic and strange word. I don’t know. But I still think Goldblatt gets the meaning wrong here, and I still hate “tart.”

It’s a pain sorting all this stuff out. I have sympathy.

The dinner party eventually gets started, with everyone trying to force Zhuang and his wife into shows of marital bliss, while his new concubine-cum-maid, and his apprentice’s wife and fresh sexual conquest look on. And the flies return...
Tang Wan'er laughed soundlessly as she cast an unhappy glance at the meddlesome Liu Yue, who was laughing merrily, her eyes on Tang, who ignored her and looked away to see a fly above a flowerpot on the windowsill. It flitted over and landed on the tip of Zhuang's ear. With a cup in his hand and his arm linked with Niu Yueqing's arm, he could only shoot the fly away by shaking his head. It stayed put. If there is such a thing as divine intervention, Wan'er mused, let the fly land on my head. To her amazement, it did just that, drawing a private smile from her as she sat motionless.
The fly ends up doing a nosedive into Niu Yueqing's cup, and Tang Wan'er offers her own to the hostess.

I’m recording that just in case I want to sum up Jia’s flies later.

As the party goes on, there’s a drinking game played, with people reciting idioms. You have to recall an idiom that begins with the last character of the one said before you. So, if it’s táng'érhuángzhī 堂而皇之, "strikingly large in physical scale," then the next one could be zhī-hū-zhě-yě 之乎者也, particles from classical language, meaning "literary jargon," and the next one could be yègōnghàolóng 叶公好龙, "professed love of what one really fears," because 也 is homophonous with 叶, and so on… Howard Goldblatt’s work is cut out for him here, and he does a great job of reforming the translated idioms so they can work in the game.

After everyone is drunk, things break down again, everyone moving off into smaller groups. Meng Yunfang tells Zhuang Zhidie about Huang Defu giving property back to the nunnery and Huiming being put in charge. Meng wants Zhuang to help out with a request from the nunnery for an apartment to be allotted to them in a nearby block. In return, Zhuang asks Meng to tell his fortune. It's not promising. He sees the sign for imprisonment.
”But luckily you have water in your karma, which, when put alongside the symbol for imprisonment 泅, means you can swim away and be rescued. However, you will be rescued only if you keep yourself afloat. If not, you could be in serious trouble."
"This is all rubbish," Zhuang responded, before getting up to refill Meng's teacup, his mind filled with trepidation.
Again, I wonder why Howard Goldblatt uses so many Britishisms! He’s an American, translating a book for an American publisher.

But anyways, that closes this section.

Page 139 to 145. Niu Yueqing's dream.

We’re still at the party, but Niu Yueqing has had too much to drink and goes to lay on her bed. She wakes up yelling and everyone crowds into the room. She doesn’t remember much of the dream, but it involved a burning bus and Zhuang Zhidie refusing to help her.

Zhou Min rushes back to the office.

His article about Zhuang is sending shockwaves through the city. Jing Xueyin has found out about it, too, and feels humiliated. Zhou realizes that he's gotten himself in trouble.

The rest of this section is a discussion about Jing Xueyin’s position in local politics and the cultural bureaucracy.

Page 145 to 156. Flutes.

This section begins with Niu Yueqing and Liu Yue going to Wang Ximian's house to pick up the money the Wangs are loaning to her. I like the details of them carrying the money back, Liu Yue walking behind Niu Yueqing, holding a rock in her hand, just in case someone tries to rob them. While returning home, they pass a billboard advertising the Zhuang Zhidie article in Xijing Magazine. Liu Yue is sent to buy a copy. When they get home, Niu Yueqing goes off to bed, then Liu Yue makes some dinner. She goes outside to get some fresh air, just as Zhuang Zhidie rolls up on his scooter.

Zhuang watches four women playing cards by the side of the road. They interrupt their game to talk to a "big-boned woman" drying persimmons outside her door. The woman playing cards explain that she sells dried persimmons dusted with talcum powder (dried persimmons have a dusting of natural sugars that come out as they dessicate).

Zhuang, for whatever reason, goes to confront her about the claim. He bullshits with her for a while, and she pops out her false teeth, prompting a jokey chat about fake eyebrows and fake breasts. As he walks away, one of the women observes that Zhuang Zhidie might be fake, too.
Zhuang overheard her comment and began to wonder. Recalling what he had done with Tang Wan'er, which seemed like a dream now, he had the nagging feeling that he might not be Zhuang Zhidie after all. If he was, how would a coward like him have the nerve to do something so daring? If he wasn't, then who was he? He paused to light a cigarette, and for the first time in his life, he noticed that the shadow of his cigarette smoke was not grayish-black, but dark red. Abruptly turning his head, he saw an elongated figure jump to the base of a wall, a sight so startling it gave him goose bumps. But when he looked closer, he realized it was his shadow, cast onto the wall by the reflection of sunlight from the opened glass door of a store. Not a man who was afraid of ghosts or the supernatural, he was nonetheless scared by his own shadow.
This strange scene of depersonalization calls to mind the parallel frequently drawn between Zhuang Zhidie and "Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly," about a man wondering if he has dreamed of being a butterfly or if he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man.

Zhuang Zhidie no longer feels as if he is himself, or he wonders who the hell he might be... The boundary between reality and dream start to get blurry.

He has just come from developing some pictures he took at the party. He's shocked to see that all of the backgrounds in the photographs are sharp, but the figures in them are faint and spectral. It's as if his camera has captured the liminal blurriness creeping into Zhuang's life.

As Zhuang walks into the house, Liu Yue whispers that Niu Yueqing is upset over the magazine article. Zhuang and Niu talk about the article, with him insisting most of it is nonsense, nothing but gossip.

Suddenly, Zhou Min arrives. Zhuang invites him in for dinner. He puts a cassette in his stereo. It's a hissy recording of someone playing a flute. Did I mention yet that Zhou Min often goes up to the city wall to play his xūn 埙 (a xūn is like an ocarina)? Well, he does, and that's what Zhuang recorded. He praises the playing, with Zhou Min finally admitting that it was him on the recording.

Niu Yueqing emerges and scolds him for a while, but not much is resolved.

Page 156 to 169. Pear tree, moles.

This section is one of the most surprising in the book—I mean… Jia is a writer known for his bad boy masculinity, I suppose, but the book does have what I think are fairly honest portrayals of feminine desire, as well. I think they’re honest, but I’m also not a woman, so I have no idea.

At this point, Zhou Min is suffering. He has written the article and is dealing with the fallout. And Tang Wan’er is suffering, too. She is desperately in love with Zhuang Zhidie, but he seems to be ignoring her.
That night, the moon was as bright as water. As usual, Zhou Min went to the city wall to play his xun. Wan'er shut the gate and went in to take a bath. Then, draping her nightgown over her naked body, she went out and sat on the lounge chair under the pear tree. Utterly lonely, she thought about Zhuang Zhidie: Why don't you come? Were you, like all the other men, just satisfying a sudden urge that day and put me out of your mind once it was over? ... He would not be like that. The look in his eyes when he first saw her, his timid approach, and his madly urgent behavior when they were together gave her the confidence that he was truly fond of her. ... Zhuang had started out shyly, but once he entered port, he was immensely living and tender; his many tricks and techniques had finally taught her the difference between the city and the countryside, and between one who was knowledgeable and one who was not. ... She touched herself as she followed this line of thought, until she began to moan and groan... She was writhing and squirming on the chair. □□ □□ □□ [The author has deleted 37 words.] The chair creaked and inched slowly toward the pear tree; squinting at the moon through the branches, she fantasized that it was Zhuang's face.
Zhou Min eventually comes home, and Tang Wan'er slips out and calls Zhuang's house. She finds out Zhuang is at the Municipal People's Congress.

Zhou Min feels abandoned by Zhuang Zhidie, as well, since most of the anger about his article is coming from Jing Xueyin, and he expects Zhuang to back him up.

Tang Wan’er decides to track down Zhuang Zhidie at his hotel. This is the point where the novel is at its most pornographic, with Zhuang and Tang having sex for the first time without any constraints, in complete privacy.
When she heard him say she had a mole down there, she looked for it in the mirror, while imagining how much he loved her. The worker in Tongguan had never noticed the mole, nor had Zhou Min. Nor even had she.
"Is it good to have a mole there?" she asked.
"Good, maybe. I have one there, too." He showed her.
"That's wonderful. We'll be able to find each other no matter where we go," she said. "Is the door locked? No one will come in, will they?"
"Now you're worrying about the door? I'm not sharing with anyone, so no one will come in."
She remained in his arms.
I’ve always liked that part about the mole on her vulva.

My relationship with this book has always been twisted up with the girl that introduced this book to me. I wrote about that before:
The first copy I ever held … belonged to the first girl I fell in love with. That was many, many years ago now. I don't know how reliable these memories are. But I think I remember her copy being a first edition, published by Beijing Publishing House ... It had the cover with the crumpled ball of paper on its. I forget where the girl—and her name was Xinran—got it, but I imagine it was probably plucked from a tarp laid out at the used book market outside Kuaizaiting Park in Xuzhou. I might have the name of the park wrong, but you'd know the place I mean, if you've spent any time in Xuzhou. There used to be a zoo in the park, and, legend had it, at least, a tiger had once broken out of its pen and mauled a man. They had a used book market there, though, mostly old men selling old novels and those glossy books of nude photographs that somehow skirted anti-pornography laws. The book was carefully wrapped in an RT-Mart flier, like all of Xinran’s books.
I used to always note the small mole or freckle peeking out of her lower right eyelid, and say that it would protect her from being counterfeit.

Before I could read Chinese, she read Ruined City to me, interpreting as she went. I can’t help but think about her, re-reading this section.

Following their lovemaking, Tang Wan’er launches into a monologue that stretches on for several pages in translation, in which she explains what she wants out of her relationship with Zhuang Zhidie. She wants to marry him, but she also wants him, in the shorter term, to make sure Zhou Min is fine.

He gives his own monologue in response, where he tells her his life story in brief. It’s basically an extended excuse why he would love to marry her but can’t:
“But I have to mourn the fact that we met too late. Why didn't you come to Xijing earlier? And why didn't I meet you back in Tongguan? I've also thought about marrying you, even about how our lives would be if we were a couple. But what about reality? ... A huge storm would erupt if I were to ask for a divorce now. ... What would Niu Yueqing do? ... But I can tell that we will eventually succeed. I want you to remember this: Please wait for me. I will marry you sooner or later. You must trust me."
She nodded. "I trust you, and I will wait for you."
They make love again, then Zhuang Zhidie slips out to give his speech. Tang Wan’er lets him go, then slips out after.

Page 169 to 177. Bureaucracy.

At the start of the next section, Zhuang Zhidie runs into Huang Defu, who we last near the beginning of the book, advising the mayor, then helping out with the nunnery. Zhuang asks Huang about the plan to convert a unit in a nearby apartment block into a literary salon (I have lost track of the exact details here). He says he’ll arrange something with the mayor.

Zhuang Zhidie calls home and hears from Hong Jiang that the book they purchased the rights to is selling well.

Zhuang has a lengthy meeting with the mayor. This section is somewhat uninteresting to me, but it does give a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of the literary bureaucracy rubbing up against the real bureaucracy.

The section ends with Zhuang Zhidie spraining his ankle coming downstairs.