While Women in Translation Month has come to an end, I do review translated fiction by women outside August, and I still have a few books I’d like to try from the piles on my shelves. Today’s choice is a short book I received from Giramondo Publishing during the event, with a slightly different focus to my usual fare. We’re off to Auckland to spend some time with a man hoping to strike it lucky after decades of scraping along. Of course, when things seem too good to be true, they usually are – let’s see what the catch is here 😉
Chinese writer Huo Yan received a fellowship in 2013 allowing her to spend some time in New Zealand, with the only condition being that she should write a story set in the country. The result was Dry Milk (translated by Duncan M. Campbell), a taut novella focusing on a member of the Chinese ex-pat community and his efforts to get rich.
At the start of the book, John Lee, the owner of a run-down antiques shop, is about to cook up a meal to celebrate thirty years in his adopted country. However, there isn’t really that much to celebrate. He lives in a shabby house with a mentally disabled woman he agreed to marry in order to get out of China, and he receives little joy from his life apart from saving a few dollars by making his existence even more miserable than it would otherwise be.
It’s understandable, then, that when an acquaintance, Ye Xiaosheng, comes up with a business proposal, the older man is all ears:
Ye Xiaosheng moved closer to John Lee. “This time in Beijing, I met up with an official who told me that the best profits were to be made in milk powder. New Zealand milk powder is known by everyone there. Why don’t we set up a milk powder brand of our own and export it to China?”
p.31 (Giramondo Publishing, 2019)
Ye has been back to China and laid the groundwork for the business, but he needs a partner with capital to invest to get the idea off the ground. Aware that exporting milk products and formulas to China is a lucrative business, Lee is sorely tempted, eventually deciding that this is the time to pluck up his courage and invest his hard-earned savings, in the hope of providing for a brighter future.
This business opportunity isn’t the only change for the better in Lee’s life. Almost overnight, his star rises in the local Chinese residents’ society, with the President choosing him for an executive role, and a chance encounter with a young female student, Jiang Xiaoyu, brings another income opportunity when she moves into his spare room. Yes, things are looking up for John Lee, so why do we sense that it’s all going to come crashing down very soon?
Dry Milk is a fairly quick read, but it’s an entertaining, enjoyable story, with more than a hint of darkness. At its heart, it’s a character study of a middle-aged man who has cast aside his customary caution to gamble on a better life. Huo sets out her protagonist’s character nicely, showing us a rather unpleasant, stingy man with a dull life:
John Lee marinated the meat for a while, sprinkling it with a mix of sauces. A previous tenant had left the condiments behind when they moved out; John Lee had fished them out of the rubbish bin and lined them up in the kitchen cupboard. (p.7)
This all changes with the business proposal and the happiness he gets from living with his beautiful new lodger, and he begins to feel that his life is improving. Cleverly, through glimpses into Lee’s past, and his future, the writer toys with the reader’s feelings towards him. At times, he’s a fairly despicable character, but as the story develops, you want his new start to succeed, especially when the inevitable disaster begins to unfold – only for Huo to once more pull the rug from under your feet.
In the author’s note that accompanied my review copy, the writer briefly touches on her experience of writing the book, and its reception. She used her interactions with the New Zealand Chinese community to inspire the novella, but five years on she reflects:
The novella had earned a response in China, having been shortlisted for the Lu Xun Literary Prize and selected as one of the best novellas of that year. But I heard that a number of Chinese people in New Zealand have been less enamoured of it.
Having read Dry Milk, I’m not surprised by that at all, as the picture Huo paints of the country and the community is fairly bleak. New Zealand comes across as small and dull, a stagnant place compared with the vibrant, fast-paced China emerging from the shadow of its violent past, and the Chinese association is a provincial organisation where people sleep through lengthy speeches or play on their smartphones.
Huo also takes aim at what she sees as the Chinese community’s obsession with getting rich quickly, with personal relationships existing purely for potential gain. This is as true for Lee as for the people he interacts with, and if you’re looking for a ‘nice’ character in the book, you’ll probably be disappointed, especially as those outside the Chinese community don’t get off any easier. The few non-Chinese characters to feature in the book are either ‘Islanders’ described as fat, slow and dirty or a clueless white man who embarasses himself at his own wedding. Yes, we’re seeing all this through John’s eyes, but you can still see how the Auckland Chinese might feel a little upset about Huo’s story…
Nevertheless, while it’s certainly not an advert for a happy life in New Zealand’s biggest city, Dry Milk is a well worked debut by a skilful writer, and an intriguing portrayal of how greed can blind people, to the extent that they bring about their own downfall. It all culminates in a shocking and (I won’t lie to you) utterly disturbing scene, but it’s the only way the book could finish. These aren’t nice people, and it’s no surprise that there won’t be a happy ending.