14 May 08 | Chad W. Post

Since Reading the World 2008 is almost here—it technically runs through the month of June, when bookstores across the country display twenty-five translated titles (warning pdf) from fifteen different presses—I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight each of these books on the site.

And there’s no better place to start than with Columbia University’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi, which was translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan. This is especially relevant, since PRI’s “The World” just interviewed Michael Berry about the translation. (More on that below.)

First, here’s a description of the book from the Columbia UP website:

Set in post-World War II Shanghai, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the longtong, the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods.

Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the antirightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of “old Shanghai”—a living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication-only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth.

Publishers Weekly gave this a starred review, calling it “A beautifully constructed cyclical narrative,” and “impossible to forget.”

And it’s worth noting that several of her other books are available in English.

The interview with Michael Berry is quite good, especially this description of the book:

The World: In what ways will the novel surprise Western readers?

Berry: I think many readers may be surprised by the initial absence of characters and story. In their place is a beautiful essayistic section depicting various facets of the city: the longtong or labyrinth-like alley neighborhoods, the pigeons that soar through the Shanghai sky, and even the abstract rumors that float through its back alleys.

It is only later that the author brings us into the world of her protagonist Wang Qiyao, whose story begins at a film studio, the place where dreams are created. While this opening sequence may come as a surprise for some readers (and may even account for the lack of enthusiasm many U.S. publishers initially displayed for the book), it is a beautiful piece of writing and, more importantly, those essayistic sections are what really tell us that this is not just the story of Wang Qiyao, it is the story of her city – Shanghai.

As the novel progresses, other surprises come via the brilliant way in which Wang gradually reincorporates these essayistic sections back into the body of the novel, interweaving them with the characters’ stories, until the reader discovers that they are actually one organic whole. The reader will also be enchanted by the novel’s structure, which revolves around three distinct eras in the heroine’s (and city’s) life and the powerful resonances that echo across time.

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