Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei translated by Canaan Morse

This wonderful short novel, Ge Fei’s first translated to English, has just been published by NYRB as a Classics Original. The cover copy calls it a “comic novel” and it is...in the sense of the straight man in a comic duo undergoing relationship trouble, family trouble, and job trouble in a fast modernizing Beijing. Our hero—we only ever learn his surname, Cui (pronounced Ts-wei)—plays the straight man role to the end, never quite losing his nerve, though he comes close, while we watch helplessly.

Cui is not completely destitute, except in terms of money, love, and friendship. He has skills. He can put together hi-fi sound systems that audiofiles want to buy. When forced to move from his sister’s unused apartment one winter, Cui develops a sound system that should qualify as “the best in the world,” for any discriminating buyer in China, in hopes that the profit will give him enough to buy a small courtyard for himself to live in.

What elevates this novel is the ordinary man quality, the sense we have of a human fleck bobbing on a wind-tossed sea over which he has no control. The bad things that happen are outside of his control, and though he makes plans and efforts to extricate himself, there is a certain inexorable flow to his outcomes.

This novel is not especially dark, though it has delicious elements of horror and mystery. We become genuinely terrified when a mysterious wealthy stranger offers to buy the "best sound system in the world," but who exudes a hard inflexibility and sense of ferocity when challenged...or when asked to pay. There is some evidence that he has done damage to those that oppose him.

Who wears the invisibility cloak in this novel? Cui tells us that
"In the 1990s, Mou Qishan, the celebrity tycoon, was a household name in Beijing. He liked calligraphy, climbing mountains, and hanging out with female movie stars—all an open secret. Other rumors, however, told of his eccentric and often unpredictable behavior. The wildest story I heard was that he could show up at any event unseen because he wore an invisibility cloak…"
When Mou died, Cui bought a pair of hexagonal Autograph speakers from Mou’s estate. He used them to construct the “best sound system in the world.” It could be the invisibility cloak passed from person to person with ownership of the speakers.

When Cui’s childhood friend Jiang Songping played a joke on Horsewhip Xu, an old man in his neighborhood, Cui had a personal revelation:
"...the best attributes of anyone or anything usually reside on the surface, which is where, in fact, all of us live out our lives. Everyone has an inner life, but it’s best if we leave it alone. For as soon as you poke a hole through that paper window, most of what’s inside simply won’t hold up to scrutiny."
What do we take from this? If you are wearing the invisibility cloak, you not only cannot be seen, there isn’t much worth seeing? It does seems as though once ownership of the Autograph speakers changed hands, the “freed man,” as it were, becomes once again visible, and able to express himself “on the surface,” without us having to look through “the hole in the paper window” to their inner thoughts.

One of the more intriguing things Ge does in this novel is debunk the integrity of Jiang Songping, Cui’s best and only friend, and he does it using a pomegranate. Jiang Songping was a clever boy, but Cui’s mother could see right away he was going to be the kind of person who owned people. Jiang had a way of sounding authoritative, even when he spoke rubbish. All of us come under his spell to some degree when he states categorically that all pomegranates, no matter how big or how long they've grown, contain the exact same number of seeds, 365 to be exact. Our eyes pop a bit with this news, for who has ever actually counted pomegranate seeds, and who could dispute this entrancing fact? Later, we learn with the chagrin we share with Cui’s sister that, in fact, Jiang lied on this occasion, and perhaps on many others.

One of the more poignant moments in the book was when Cui returned to the neighborhood where he grew up and discovered it much changed:
"Human memory really is unreliable. I could clearly remember this alley being long, wide, submerged in green shade or sprinkled with white locust flowers, and nowhere near as cramped and seedy as it looked that day…As I sat on the stoop and surveyed the cluttered street under the setting sun, I felt vaguely alienated from everything."
Not all change is good...but memory is unreliable.

This is a delightful addition to the canon coming out of China today, having none of the syrupy schmaltz that earlier, more severely censored works demonstrated. Terrific translation by Canaan Morse, and many thanks to NYRB for picking this one out to share with us. Kudos to all on this one.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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