"There's Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night" by Cao Naiqian [BTBA 2010 Fiction Longlist]

Over the next ten days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.

There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Cao Naiqian. Translated from the Chinese by John Balcom. (China, Columbia University Press)

Below is a guest post from translator and librarian Wendy Hardenberg about Cao Naiqian’s entry on the 2010 BTBA fiction longlist. All thanks to Wendy for helping me get through all of these write-ups before the 2/16 announcement of the ten finalists.

Back in November, as I took my second turn around the ALTA Conference book exhibit “just to make sure there was nothing I really wanted” (ha!), I found myself drawn to a very dark-looking book with a very long title. It just so happened that my tastes that day were inclined towards a combination of the odd and the short (thus my purchase of two separate volumes of microfiction by Ana María Shua, translated by two different people), so when the book jacket for There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night told me it was a “genre-defying exposé of rural communism” that consisted of “a series of vivid, interlocking vignettes,” I thought, why not? And I bought it, too.

John Balcom’s introduction, “The Austere Lyricism of Cao Naiqian,” is a handy place to begin, especially if you’re not at all familiar with modern Chinese fiction. It turns out that Cao Naiqian started writing at age 37 as the result of a bet and it isn’t even his full time job. Balcom compares There’s Nothing I Can Do to the writings of Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Erskine Caldwell, and goes on mention that “Cao once commented that the entire book is concerned with the basic instincts for food and sex.” Given that description and a cast of characters which consists entirely of rural Shanxi peasants, you might expect the book to be a bit earthy. You’d be right. For one thing, the residents of the village of Wen Clan Caves (based on an actual village the author worked in during the Cultural Revolution) certainly know how to curse, and the details Cao chooses are frequently tactile and visceral—types of food are always explicitly named, bodily functions are not at all hidden or hurried. But a more important aspect is the evocation of the peasants’ stifled emotional and intellectual lives, which is just heart-breaking. The Communism that is supposedly lifting them up really only exists in the persons of the Brigade Leader and the Accountant, who in forcing people to “struggle” the old landlords are clearly just imposing a new oppressive system:

Old Zhao nudged the Brigade Leader with his elbow; the Brigade Leader walked toward Old Guiju.

“Have you thought about it thoroughly?” asked the Brigade Leader.

“Yes,” replied Old Guiju.

The Brigade Leader turned to Old Zhao and said, “All right.” Old Zhao said to the Accountant, “Start the meeting.” The Accountant took the flashlight that he always carried with him from his belt, stood up, held it with both hands in the air, and flashed it. After pressing several times, he said, “Okay! We will continue with the meeting now. All right! Bring in Wen Hehe of the landlord class.”

Everyone fixed their eyes on the opening in the pen. Three people filed in through the opening. They lined up in front of the table facing the commune members.

Old Zhao, the cadre who had been sent to the countryside, motioned for the two people holding red-tasseled spears to stand aside. A tall, thin man around forty was left standing there. It was Wen Hehe of the landlord class whom the Accountant had summoned. The sweat on his head glistened under the gas lamp above him.

“All right,” the Accountant said, “the masses will speak freely tonight. He who wishes to speak, go ahead and speak up.”

As on the first night, everyone lowered their heads, afraid that the Accountant would shine his flashlight on them.

There are certainly moments of levity among the thirty stories, but generally the goings-on are not for the faint of heart. One of the central problems for the entire village is the young men’s lack of access to women. Traditionally, no one is supposed to have sex unless married, but marriage is very expensive and the people of Wen Clan Caves are very poor. Shenanigans obviously abound, but they do little to improve anyone’s condition. The story called “Party” perfectly juxtaposes an ostensibly celebratory occasion for the “not-so-young unmarried men” with the sad motivation behind it:

All that could be heard in the room was the sound of slurping. If you didn’t know what they were doing, you would have assumed they were all sobbing.

After three bowls each, they looked at the slop pot. It was still half full. Only then did they relax and slow down.

“You said they had eight bowls and eight plates in the commune film. Now that must have been a real feast.”

“You bet.”

“You said it must have been a party.”

“You bet.”

“You said the men and women kissing were really kissing.”

“You bet.”

“You said the actors playing the man and wife were really doing it.”

“You bet.”

“Shut up! Let’s hear about how big your fucking dicks are,” swore Leng Er, standing up suddenly and tapping his bowl with his chopsticks. After cursing this way, he walked over to the pig-slop pot and scooped out another bowl.

“Fuck you,” swore Leng Er furiously. After swearing this way, he went and squatted in the corner by an urn and began slurping his food.

After that bout of swearing, no one said a thing. It wasn’t that they were afraid of Leng Er, they just didn’t say anything or joke after his rant. They all lowered their heads and began slurping up the contents of their bowls. They slurped until sweat was running down their noses. Maybe the sweat was mixed with the tears of the unmarried men.

Slurp, slurp.

Slurp, slurp.

The room was filled with the sound of slurping.

Slurp, slurp.

Slurp, slurp.

The whole cave was filled with a slurping sound that resembled sobbing.

I initially liked the title of this book because it sounded so frankly and resolutely hopeless, like the end of a sad love story. Empathetic readers beware: it’s fitting.

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