For acclaimed Chinese writer Can Xue, the imagination drives a tragicomic search for the ideal.
Originally published in Chinese just over two decades ago, "Five Spice Street," is the first of Can Xue's novels to appear in English. Until now she has been won critical praise in the West for her short stories and novellas, including Susan Sontag's claim that "if China has one possibility of a Nobel laureate it is Can Xue."
One of the inaugural volumes of the Margelllos World Republic of Letters series from Yale University Press, "Five Spice Street" (splendidly translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) is a self-conscious epic of speculation gone mad, its pages of suppositions, guesswork, theories, and wild surmises generated by the cacophonous voices of a neighborhood in an unnamed city filled with people obsessed with the identity of a mysterious Madam X, who may or may not have supernatural powers, and her lover, Mr. Q.
A writer in the book, trying to make sense of the elusive Madam X, comes up with a striking vision of Can Xue's quest for order amid an overcrowded chaos:
The writer's task is like boring into the maze of a gigantic anthill, but he cannot shirt it. He knows through experience that only the methods of abstract art, used in diagramming each aspect of the maze, will enable him to lead readers to grasp the "general idea," even if they can't find their way through the specifics. This is the fascination of art. Though it can't be fathomed, it has supreme influence."
Bill Marx, editor of World Books, asked Can Xue about the impulses behind "Five Spice Street" and what, if anything, the book's self-conscious puzzles say about life in contemporary China.
The World: What interested you in the creation of a character whose identity is indecipherable to others, including the reader?
Can Xue:: My inspiration springs from my life's activities. This novel was written when I was in my thirties. For a very long time beforehand, I had a sense that a person's emotional existence takes place inside of an enormous, endlessly deep gulf. For someone trying to achieve an ideal emotional life, it's really "as difficult as ascending to the sky." Even so, people fumble around in the dark, trudging through muck and mire. Why don't they abandon their tenuous, almost unrealizable, hope? Do that ideal and that hope actually exist? If they exist, in what form can they show themselves? I was meditating on this puzzle . . . when suddenly, one day, I picked up a pen and wrote down the symbol "X." This was the beginning of a novel. I think it was an internal urge, an extreme passion for life and for daily existence, that led me to portray this character "X."
The World: What were the challenges posed in writing the novel -- did you ever worry that a story made up of puzzles within puzzles would frustrate rather than tantalize the reader?
Can Xue: Authors like myself, whose works belong to what Harold Bloom defines in "The Anxiety of Influence" as "high literature," should not -- and cannot -- take account of the reader at the moment when they are writing. The writing process is "lost in madness": the author can consider nothing else, and is only able to listen attentively to the voices coming from above. But after the work emerges I can evaluate it. I think that my works are suited to a small number of advanced readers -- readers who value the life of the mind, who have a habit of soul-searching, and moreover are familiar with modernist literature and art. If a reader feels that this book is unreadable, then it's quite clear that he's not one of my readers.
The World: One critical description of the novel calls it a "lovely surrealist romp." Do you agree? How would you describe the book's humor? To me, it seemed to be as corrosive as it was cute.
Can Xue: I agree with your opinion. To call this kind of humor only "intriguing" is a relatively superficial reading. If you stop at such a superficial reading, you aren't able to answer these kinds of questions: What is the novel actually saying? Why is this profound humor (someone called it "gut-wrenching laughter") necessary? A good writer's creative drive wells up from dissatisfaction with everyday life, resentfulness of everyday life, and from a persevering search for the ideal existence. It's only through this continual searching that he can invest his everyday life with meaning. Humor puts down its roots in everyday life, but its black flower opens in paradise. Such humor should always be in the greatest tension.
The World: What does the allure of Mr. Q and Madame X say about the nature of power? I am thinking of an ironic reflection from one of the characters: "How did these two characters become our masters? They're nothing, and we always looked down upon them, but unfortunately God likes to play games with people: the more you scoff at something the more he will inflate its status, until your head is muddled and you busy yourself blindly with it."
Can Xue: The allure of these two specter-like characters is that they represent the spirit. Anyone who is "frustrated" in the realm of everyday life, but is still the kind of person who seeks out a spiritual life, will still sense their power. Every single nobody in "Five Spice Street" is a projection from my own everyday life, and like me they lead the lowly lives of blind men. But once there is Madam X, this bundle of light, my entire worldly life is illuminated. I started to borrow the voice of "the writer" to narrate, and this kind of narration from heaven changed my ordinary existence into something dynamic. X's allure is in fact a kind of power, having the quality of being a person's natural instincts -- man has to seek the spiritual, an artist's artistic life has to take place through the relating of the ideal.
The "I" of everyday life is made up of nobodies. These nobodies are lowly, mean, and tenacious, fear nothing in heaven or earth, and scoff at the ideal. Because the ideal is too remote, and basically unreachable, they "curse" her, deny her. But this is all on the surface. In the recesses of their hearts, they make X, this ideal, into their impetus for narration, their impetus for keeping on living. In this story the tension between the extremes is too great, so much so that some readers can't grasp the core of the story. This is also quite natural.
The World: Is "Five Spice Street" partly a social satire of contemporary China, a lampoon of a kaleidoscopic "mass mind" that is both attracted to and afraid of individuality?
Can Xue: Not at all. Even though the impetus for my work comes from everyday life, I've never tried to depict the surface of society. "High literature" should always be like this. Social life is only my raw material, and I use it to create a completely different thing, one that belongs only to myself. I think it's only this kind of writing that can truly create something new, and evoke a response from the depth of human emotions. As you dig deeper, the resonance you bring forth is even more powerful, more lasting.
The World: Sexuality in the novel is talked about often in the book -- it is an occasional delight but more often a burden. In what way does your perspective as a woman inform the novel's satiric vision of the conflict between men and women?
Can Xue: I make use of two methods. The first is the method of dividing oneself, that is, dividing myself up into every role within the book. Experiencing these roles is a way of experiencing myself. The second method is to "internalize," that is, after transforming all kinds of feelings from my everyday life, using them to create an emotional story in the depths of my soul. This way, the reader feels while he is reading both that the story is already his own (because souls can communicate with each other), but also that it is an incomparably distant, unattainable place (because it has nothing to do with the realities of society).
The World: You have talked about art's responsibility to explore the soul. How does this novel, which deals with the chameleonic nature of identity, do that?
Can Xue: My novels portray the divisions within human nature: this is a picture of the soul of modern man. What I want to pass on to my readers is how very difficult it is to unite these divisions, and at the same time trying to reach the other shore is also impossible. But I also show, when they are seeking the spiritual, how tenacious, how unreconciled to being blind, and also how richly imaginative these nobodies are, even though they are severely restricted. These people, who make the spirit of life their sustenance, ought to have a "future" that belongs to them. Their future exists in the imagination of Madam X. It is imagination, and only imagination, that allows the people of Five Spice Street to fly over the gulf of human nature. That is to say, Can Xue flies over the gulf, because while sitting on the polluted earth she can conceive of paradise.