An Empty Room: Stories
Like countless other foreign authors, Mu Xin is only just now getting his first collection of fiction published in English with An Empty Room, though he has more than twenty books published in mainland China. What seems all the more tragic is that many of these works were written while Xin was living in the United States, as almost all his previous literary and artistic works had been destroyed in the social turmoil of post World War II and mid-Cultural Revolution China. Luckily, English readers now have An Empty Room, a stunning, beautiful collection of fiction that hopefully will lead to more of his work in the future.
In the translator’s afterword for An Empty Room, Toming Jun Liu states that the thirteen stories collected in this collection can be read individually or as a linked story cycle akin to a kind of bildungsroman. And it is quite tempting to do so. Most of the stories are written like long-ago memories being recalled, often melancholy stories of growing up: both the natural growing up of a child, and the unnatural maturation that hits a young adult confronted with tragedy. All the stories are written in the first person too, so though the titles change, the narrator seems constant, even in stories like “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” which follows Alice and takes place in a post-war Britain.
What is particularly interesting about this collection of “stories” is how personal they seem, and how un-story like they can be. “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” is less a short story than a curious little essay, like the kind of internal monologue one has when talking a long walk by themselves (which is actually what the narrator is doing in the piece—talking a stroll through Queens, New York). Translator Jun Liu attributes this as Xin’s affinity with the Chinese prose style sanwen (which is usually just translated as “prose”), a classical Chinese genre of writing that “freely crosses the boundaries of poetry, meditative essay, and fiction.” I personally did not respond as strongly to “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” than to some of the other pieces in this collection, but that, of course, is one of the many road bumps one has to deal with when faced with artistic standards and styles that differ from one’s norm. But what ties almost all the pieces together is their sense of pure storytelling—like the narrator is a close friend, telling you the reader his most cherished personal anecdotes and feelings.
A few decades have passed since then. I still remember the surprise I felt when I first pushed open that screen door. The desolate winter scenery of the mountain, the abandoned church and temple as if the whole of humanity had disappeared, contrasted strikingly with the flowering cherry blossoms that blazed before me—people, life… bluish-white letterhead, golden yellow Kodak boxes—it was like the welcome of spring, or an unexpected encounter with an old friend.
Those fleas that had bitten Liang may have also bitten Mei. A poet once compared the blood of a man and a woman mixed with the living walls of a flea to a marriage temple. What a refined sentiment of tragedy! By coincidence my own blood was mixed in as well, though I was innocent. I never witnessed the marriage of Liang and Mei.
I record this story in memory of my youth. And still I cannot comprehend what it means—which only demonstrates that I haven’t made much progress these past few decades.
The best stories in this collection are among some of the most beautiful pieces of prose I’ve read in recent memory. The title story is a haunting tale of the narrator finding a temple in the mountains, and trying to unravel the circumstances that lead to a deserted room filled with abandoned love letters. In “The Boy Next Door,” the narrator debates taking a picture with one of his friend’s young neighbors, who is the spitting image of the narrator as a child, when all of his own old pictures have been lost in a “catastrophic fire that would last more than ten years.” And in “Fong Fong No. 4” the narrator describes a lifelong relationship with a sometimes friend, sometimes lover as she reinvents herself over the years.
Besides writing, Mu Xin has made a name for himself as an artist and painter, and in my opinion, it shows. It’s hard to say whether this was an aspect of the original or the translation, but translator Toming Jin Liu has rendered Xin’s prose in this collection as extremely literary. This is certainly not a bad thing per se, but at times it comes off as a little over the top and somewhat pretentious, which can be off-putting. It also seems to me that they were all translated at different times. Although the majority of the stories are honestly translated not just ably but beautifully, for some reason “Quiet Afternoon Tea” stands out as being incredibly awkward and stilted—particularly in the characters’ dialogue (which I find rather ironic, since this is one of the only stories where the characters ostensibly are speaking in English). I find it strange that this one story stands out so strongly amongst the others in the way it is translated, but again, the rest of the collection doesn’t really have any problems like the ones I see in this particular story.
It already seems unfair to devote a whole paragraph to my minor complaints about this collection, because An Empty Room is an excellent collection of fiction by any standards. I was stunned by the quality of the prose and the depths of its emotion, and I sincerely look forward to reading more of Mu Xin’s work in the future.