‘The Last Lover’ by Can Xue (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 10)

IMG_2040While IFFP journeys do provide the odd trip into the unknown, for the most part we literary travellers find ourselves following well-worn paths, revisiting the wars of the twentieth century or experiencing yet another Bildungsroman, wherever it may be set.  However, just occasionally, the bus leaves the highway, and we find ourselves experiencing something a little different, a refreshing change from the usual fare.  Sometimes, when you have no idea where you’ve ended up, you might just find yourself in exactly the right place 🙂

*****
The Last Lover by Can Xue – Yale University Press (translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen)
What’s it all about?
No idea.

Make an effort at least…
If you insist…

Joe is an average white-collar worker at a company manufacturing clothes for large businesses.  His wife, Maria, likes jewellery and spends her days weaving tapestries at home.  She has cats too:

“Joe couldn’t get used to Maria saying strange things, although she’d always had this habit.  Her strangeness had been passed on to the two African cats.  Not long before, the brown-striped female had even bitten their son.”
p.8 (Yale University Press, 2014)

Joe’s boss, Vincent, is having a bit of a mid-life crisis.  Vincent’s wife, Lisa, is frantic, chasing her husband all over town (and beyond).  Joe’s biggest client, Reagan, the owner of a gigantic, ever-expanding ranch somewhere in the south of a vaguely described, generic country, is going crazy, abandoning his responsibilities and chasing after Ida, an immigrant from an unnamed land in the east.  With me so far?

Imagine, then, a book in which these characters randomly move around, visiting places that may or may not exist, moving easily between dreams and reality (if there is such a thing), confusing daily life with events experienced while asleep, or while reading, a novel in which geography is merely a state of mind and where permanence is subjective.  That’s Can Xue’s The Last Lover for you.

Already, I can hear most of you heading for the door, and I’m not going to lie to you – many readers won’t enjoy this book (even on the esteemed literary institution that is the IFFP Shadow Panel, there are several people who couldn’t, or didn’t want to, get to grips with Can’s novel).  However, if you’re the kind of reader who is prepared to suspend their disbelief, one who devours Kafka for breakfast, a person who thinks Murakami would be a decent writer if only he were prepared to be a little less realistic once in a while, well then, step this way – The Last Lover may well be just the book for you 🙂

Still, the bizarre nature of the book makes analysing it problematic.  Unlike, say, Murakami, who usually provides a guide into his works in the shape of a sympathetic first-person narrator, Can throws us headlong into a world where everyone knows the rules and logic of existence – except us.  The characters will smile, then argue, proclaim their love for a partner then leave without a word; they’ll be desperate to get somewhere, then spend an hour reading a book instead.  The reader is handicapped by a lack of knowledge regarding the target culture, but safe in the knowledge that the only person who does have that knowledge is the writer herself.

However, if you look hard and long enough, several themes do emerge from beneath the dreamscape.  One of the major ideas explored is that of  partnership and relationships, particularly that of  Joe and Maria.  As the husband goes off on his business trips, and drifts in and out of his imaginary book world, the wife works his experiences into her tapestries, living her husband’s life vicariously in fabric.  While the couple appear to have little in common, living separate lives, in fact they are connected by something intangible, and the shared absences make their marriage stronger (yes, I realise that makes no sense).

Another of the main themes is an obsession with East and West, with the ‘western’ setting featuring several ‘eastern’ characters.  Many of the ‘western’ men, including Joe’s son, Daniel, are obsessed with Asian women, the prime example of this being the mysterious Arab or Asian woman, all dressed in black, who flits in and out of the story, turning the heads of all the men who encounter her.  As the book progresses (it rarely develops…), the setting actually moves into ‘Asia’, as Joe and Vincent attempt to understand where their lives are taking them – without success, naturally.

This also comes through in the focus on home and homelessness, with many of the characters being migrants.  People like Ida, who escaped from a terrible mudslide in her home country, and Kim, the enigmatic manager of Reagan’s estates, have settled in a new land without quite being able to settle down.  They feel a longing for home, unable to throw off the strangeness of the new, and with the bizarre world she’s created, the writer ensures that we feel the strangeness of a new world too.

There’s also an obvious focus on reading in the way that we experience a dream world stronger than reality.  After decades of reading, Joe has created a mental refuge every bit as detailed and colourful as the ‘real’ world, one which others are starting to take notice of.  Even Vincent has an interest in his employee’s actions:

“Originally he’d thought he was tracking down the Arab woman, but now he had entered Reagan’s demon-possessed realm.  He’d often heard people speak of intersecting dreamworlds.  At his own company Joe was involved in this shady kind of business and he was making experiments through reading.” (p.36)

Anyone who reads my blog will be well aware of the power of books and imagination – The Last Lover merely takes the idea that little bit further 🙂

It’s not just in the content, however, that The Last Lover is strange.  The bizarre effect of the story is heightened by the writing style, deliberately disjointed and off-putting, with a host of flat stock characters who share names and pop up in different places.  We’re also assaulted on every page by bizarre leaps of logic, sentences and paragraphs which have you looking around for clues to the meaning:

“A strange man walked out of the building.  Glancing back, Joe saw that the door to the basement was already shut.  Joe scanned the wall for signs of rain, but there were none.  Whose house was so like his own?” (p.222)

OK…  Perhaps a little context would help, you muse.  Believe me, it wouldn’t…

Even the grammatical structure of the writing  can add to the confusion.  There are many simple IMG_5189sentences, switching from one idea to the next with little logical sequence, and the writer frequently uses unfamiliar word order and unusual word choices.  Of course, this is where the translator (Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) comes in, and in a different book you’d be forgiven for doubting her work, suspecting clumsy word choices and mistranslations.  However, here the language is almost certainly deliberately off-kilter, and the decision to keep some of the Chinese onomatopoeic words (‘weng weng droning’, ‘ze ze tongue clicking’, sha sha rustle’) is also a good one, adding to the sense of estrangement.

In the end, it’s all deliberate, and there’s a method to the obvious madness:

“Continuing on, the depiction was an account of everyday life flowing like water.  Her neighbours were a few names not to be remembered, and, later on, even the name Hailin became vaguely intermingled with them, and the descriptions changed to cloudy water.  Also, he didn’t know what were the intentions of the book’s author, who suddenly dropped into a vulgar tone to start praising freedom.” (p.77)

Like the author of Joe’s fictional book, Can Xue has written her piece, and it’s up to us to interpret it as best we can.  In fact, if we’re looking for a way to sum up The Last Lover, perhaps Murakami, in 1Q84, sums it up best:

“If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation…”

One thing I can assure you of here – explanations are very thin on the ground 😉

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Obviously 😉

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
To be honest, I’m amazed it made the longlist…  This was always a book more suited to the American Best Translated Book Award (whose longlist it also made), and with the easy-reading focus of the IFFP, it was very surprising Can’s novel made it into the last fifteen.  For once, hats off to Tonkin and co. – but the shortlist was always likely to be a step too far.

*****
Well, normal service has been resumed, and we’re leaving the world of dreams and make-believe behind to return to books more related to our daily lives.  Our next stop takes us out onto the Steppes of the former Soviet Union, where we’ll meet an unusual man who will tell us an unusual story.  A word of warning – swimming costumes are not required…

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7 thoughts on “‘The Last Lover’ by Can Xue (Review – IFFP 2015, Number 10)

  1. Nice work with that Tony! Writing about a book like this does not do it justice. This really was one of the treats of the longlist for me. I enjoyed following the trails of the main characters (of course one had my name which was weird in Chinese novel). And if this was too off the wall for some IFFP shadow jurists, my foray into the BTBA longlist (I’m looking at you Hilda Hilst – or your ghost) make The Last Lover seem like a breezy walk in the park!

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    1. Joe – Thanks 🙂 I really enjoyed this, but I can see how some might be daunted. The truth, though, is that this is what I like to find when going through these lists, something a little different (not stuff like ‘F’, ‘The Investigation’ or – shudder – ‘Tiger Milk’…). Hopefully, I’ll find the time to try out some of her shorter stuff at some point 🙂

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  2. Thanks for this review, Tony, especially as I am at the stage where I am still thinking about this. I spent a whole year reading books regarded as experimental or ‘difficult’ but I don’t think I encountered one which I found as difficult to get as purchase on as this.

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    1. Grant – No worries 🙂 I really enjoyed this, but I am a reader who prefers something a lttle challenging. Not sure everyone would share my feelings here…

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      1. Daniel – The usual suspects, of course – ‘Ulysses’, ‘The Magic Mountain’, several by Virginia Woolf. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished Rilke’s ‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’, another mindbender 😉

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