Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.

There are a few instances in this paragraph in which the reader is forced to reorder the sentence in order to understand it. Like with the placement of “opinions differ” in the first sentence, and “because at the oldest” (what’s the oldest? the points of view?) in the second. Fixing these sorts of knotty sentences is what one does when editing a translation—even if you don’t know the source language.

Here’s the first paragraph as it appears in the finished book:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person’s guess is as good as another’s. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the other, she’s twenty-two.

For a book like this—essentially a surrealistic romp that obeys its own internal logic—it’s important that the writing is clear and direct. In short, the “plot” of Five Spice Street is that Madame X and Mr. Q have had an affair, and everyone on Five Spice Street has their own opinions about it. About how old Madame X, about whether Mr. Q is attractive, about whether Madame X is conducting strange rituals in her bedroom at night, about how the affair started, etc. It’s a novel of voices that constantly contradict one another and that—instead of advancing a linear plot—sort of over-stuff the book with details and speculations and unrelated anecdotes.

This is a very chaotic novel, which isn’t to say that it’s not interesting. Can Xue has a way with images, and the occasionally dashes of humor are great. Five Spice Street is a truly unique novel—in the style in which it’s written and in its overall aesthetic.

It’s also a novel that’s best approached in small doses. Taken as a series of individual scenes, or mini-tales, it’s a pretty compelling read. But with the constant shifting of events, of details, of every possible “fact” presented in the novel (everything seems possible, nothing seems true) creates a sense of constant flux that may or may not really add up to anything in the end.

Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories contains an afterword in which Can Xue explains—kind of—what she’s up to in her writing. And although this was specifically written for Blue Light, I think it applies rather nicely to Five Spice Street as well:

The particular characterists of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.

I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventionas, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Kudos to Yale University Press for launching the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series and for including in it such a wonderfully strange, unconventional novel. This bodes really well for the series as a whole.

Order from Harvard Book Store.


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Five Spice Street
By Can Xue
Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
Reviewed by Chad W. Post
329 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 9780300122275
$25.00
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