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A Thousand Prayers

Ford Madox Ford remembered Joseph Conrad trying to write in English as they collaborated on a novel:

He used to come in in the mornings and, having climbed the many stairs to my small, dreadful, study, would sit for hours motionless and numb with a completely expressionless face. Every now and then he would say:

I can’t do it. It can’t be done. Je suis foutu!” Then he would launch out into a frightful diatribe against the English language. It was a language for dogs and horses. It was incapable of conveying human thoughts….

He would groan: “No, it’s no use. I’m going to France. I tell you I am going to set up as a French writer. French is a language; it is not a collection of grunted sounds.”

Although Conrad, as Ford remembered, spoke a heavily accented English, once he had a pen in his hand he “could write English with a speed, a volubility and a banal correctness that used to amaze me.” Despite his ease with the written word, Conrad in England remained an outsider and his subjects would always be the exotic and the faraway. Nonetheless, he was deeply alert to the work of his contemporaries, outsiders too, who had made their way into the center of English letters. Conrad’s relationship with Henry James is a sign, in case we needed one, of the sheer brittleness of his position and the susceptibility of his imagination once he had mastered the language and published his first book.

He sent James his second book, An Outcast of the Islands, in 1896 with an elaborately flattering inscription. James admired the book and responded by sending him The Spoils of Poynton, a novel which dealt with English manners. Conrad thought that “the delicacy and tenuity” of James’s novel “was a great sheet of plate glass—you don’t know it’s there till you run against it.” Ford reported the “rapturous and shouting enthusiasm of Conrad over the story,” suggesting that it “must have been the high water mark of Conrad’s enthusiasm for the work of any other writer.”1

Conrad and James met for lunch in February 1897.2 James was fifty-three, Conrad thirty-nine. Immediately after their meeting, Conrad attempted a story which was his most Jamesian in tone and content, almost comically so, and one of his most directly English in manner and background. It seemed briefly as though he was ready to discard his foreign subject matter, his tales of the sea and of foreign adventurers, and try to move into the heart of brightness—a large house in London with not a foreigner in sight, in “the impenetrable and polished discretions of closed doors and curtained windows.”

He worked over and over on this story, called “The Return,” which dealt with the sexual betrayal of a man who enjoyed “the delightful world of crescents and squares.” When Conrad had finished it, he found that no magazine would print it. The story, he wrote, “embittered five months” of his life. He moved from admiring it, to disliking it, to feeling a strange protective pride toward it. It was the story that made him realize that in England he would always be an outsider and his job was to dramatize the lives of the natives of the countries he had known; his editors and readers did not want him to write about the native English in their native land.

In his introduction to Tales of Unrest, where the story first appeared, he called it “a left-handed production.” Thus when he read James’s The Turn of the Screw, serialized in 1898, he knew not to attempt a story with a similar background—a large country house in England with a governess—but the following year to take the form of James’s story and its tone and the central phrase—“Mr. Quint is dead”—and place them in a setting which his readers expected him to dramatize, a place which he could call the heart of darkness. He could write in English if he pleased, but he would best set his story in the Congo.

For many writers who have, in the last decade, taken English as their first language or the language in which they write, their subject matter has remained their country of origin. The writers of the various diasporas bring us news from far away; and they have to deal, as Conrad did, with our expectations that far away will be fascinating and exotic, beyond our wildest dreams, or at least beyond our tamest drawing rooms. It is impossible to imagine what might be the response from publishers or from readers if Daniel Alarcón, whose first book of stories, written in English but set in contemporary Peru, began to describe middle-class middle America, or if Ha Jin, who has set his work in China, were to turn his mind to the golf courses and country clubs of Connecticut, or if Aleksandar Hemon, who also writes in English, were to write a book in which none of the characters came from the former Yugoslavia, or if Panos Karnezis, who writes in English about Greece and lives in England, were to write a book about adultery among the native English in the Home Counties, or if Olga Grushin, whose The Dream Life of Sukhanov was written in English, were to devote a book to the antics of native-born thirty-somethings on the island of Manhattan.

Yiyun Li’s first book of stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, written in English, comes with all the shock of contemporary China. Li, who is thirty-three years old, lived there until 1996, when she came to the US. On the first page of the first story, “Extra,” the Red Star Garment Factory has gone bankrupt and Granny Lin will not receive a pension. “‘Bankrupt’ is the wrong word for a state-owned industry,” the story goes on:

Internal reorganization” is what has been kindly omitted in the certificate. And, mind this, Granny Lin’s pension is being withheld only temporarily. For how long, the factory has no further information to offer.

Granny Lin’s neighbor will, as consolation, offer Granny the first line of a commercial: “There is always a road when you get into the mountain”; and the second line “slips out before Granny realizes it”: “And there is a Toyota wherever there is a road.” Thus in the very first page of her book Yiyun Li establishes her characters’ credentials as consumers rather than comrades.

The idea that Li is dramatizing a society in a state of change is further emphasized by the last job that Granny Lin gets in the story, which is in the Mei-Mei Academy which “takes pride in being among the first private schools in the country.” The story tells us that this is an aspect of the new China:

Private schools, like all private businesses, are sprouting up across the country like bamboo shoots after the first spring rain. Relatives of the Communist Party leaders are being transformed overnight into business owners, their faces appearing on national TV as representatives of the new proletariat entrepreneurs.

Granny Lin, who has been deprived of luxury all her life, is amazed at the life she sees at the academy:

Everything is produced by a small organic farm that serves the president and the premier and their families—so the chef informs Granny Lin…. Granny Lin is stunned by the parents’ wealth, the ease with which they pay the initiation fee of twenty thousand yuan and another twenty thousand for the first year of tuition and room and board…. On Friday afternoons, the parking lot outside the school gate is full of luxury cars. Chauffeurs and nannies come, and sometimes the parents themselves show up. Teachers and dorm mothers stand inside the gate, pointing out to one another who is the daughter-in-law of a power figure in the government and who has appeared in the latest hit movie.

The next story, “After a Life,” catches China on an even greater wave of change. Mr. Su spends his days at the stock exchange:

The stockbrokerage, like most of the brokerage firms in Beijing, rented space from bankrupted state-run factories. The one Mr. Su visited used to manufacture color TVs, a profitable factory until it lost a price war to a monopolizing corporation. The laid-off workers were among the ones who frequented the ground floor of the brokerage, opening accounts with their limited means and hoping for good luck. Others on the floor were retirees, men and women of Mr. Su’s age who dreamed of making their money grow instead of letting the money die in banks, which offered very low interest rates.

At the brokerage office Mr. Su meets Mr. Fong, whose wife had been imprisoned for seven years in a corruption scandal in which she was found to have taken more than 170,000 yuan. Mr Fong, having told his new friend about her sentence,

hit the table with a fist. In a lower voice, he said, “Believe me, Old Su, only the smaller fish pay for the government’s face-lift. The big ones—they just become bigger and fatter.”

Mr. Su nodded. A hundred and seventy thousand yuan was more than he could imagine, but Mr. Fong must be right that it was not a horrific crime.

Recent Chinese history casts dark shadows on the story “Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way.” The narrator notices that “the heads of the pair of lions were chopped off by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution as part of the old trash. I sit astride the lioness, fingering the sharp edges left by the axes.” The children’s songs are full of references to President Truman or to Liu Shaoqi, neither of whose names makes any sense to the narrator, who has been brought up within the walls of the Department of Nuclear Industry:

It will…be years later when I know more about Liu Shaoqi: a loyal follower and close colleague of Chairman Mao, he was tortured to death by a group of teenagers when he showed doubt about Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In “The Princess of Nebraska,” Sasha’s mother,

one of the thousands of high school students sent down from Beijing to Inner Mongolia for labor reeducation…in order to join the Party, married a Mongolian herdsman, one of the model interracial marriages that were broadcast across the grassland.

But the largest shadow over the entire book of stories is that of the United States. In “The Princess of Nebraska” Sasha has made her way to the United States; she is, as the story opens, sitting in a McDonald’s in Chicago. She is in the city to have an abortion, having been made pregnant by Yang, a young gay actor cum prostitute in Beijing. Their first date was to see Pretty Woman, “with almost unreadable Chinese subtitles.” After the movie Sasha says of Julia Roberts:

  1. 1

    See my introduction to the Hesperus edition of Conrad’s The Return (2004) and Ian Watt’s Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (University of California Press, 1979).

  2. 2

    Conrad wrote to Edward Garnett: “I had a note from James. Wants me to lunch with him on Thursday next—so there is something to live for—at last!” See Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, p. 203.

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