‘I Live in the Slums’ by Can Xue (Review – IBP 2021, Number Eight)

It’s time to leave our blossoming sibling friendship behind as we have a plane to catch to our next International Booker Prize longlist destination.  Today sees us touching down in China, but if you were hoping to check out the sights of Beijing or do some shopping in Shanghai, I’ve got some bad news for you.  We’re heading out into the provinces, and with not even the hint of an Airbnb possibility, we’ll probably find ourselves out on the streets.  I do apologise for making you all slum it, but in fairness, it’s not really my fault.  Please direct any complaints in the direction of the writer…

I Live in the Slums by Can Xue
– Yale University Press, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)

What’s it all about?
Hmm, hard to say…

After two previous longlist appearances (in the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Last Lover and the 2019 Man Booker International Prize for Love in the New Millennium, both translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen), the inimitable Can Xue has once again been rewarded for her unique dreamlike fiction.  However, where the two previous books were novels, this time around we get to sample some of her shorter fiction, as I Live in the Slums is a compilation of short stories published in various forums, with one slightly longer piece kicking the book off and providing its title.

This opening piece, Story of the Slums, is a five-part story told by a rather unusual narrator, an unidentified animal often called ‘Rat’.  They are an outsider living for short periods of time in people’s houses, relatively barren dwellings with little inside save for a stove to provide warmth and cook meals on.  As the story progresses, the creature is forced to seek refuge elsewhere in the slums, moving from house to house and then underground, where they find some very strange goings-on indeed.

While it starts off well, Story of the Slums sees Can being as vague as ever, with Rat’s travels around the slums allowing us to meet strange creatures digging underground, a helpful midget, a streetwise youth and a very aggressive mouse:

I got acquainted with the house mice during the daytime.  During the day, the houses were much lighter than at night.  Hearing something gnawing bones, I thought it was the cat.  I jumped down from the hearth and ran over to have a look.  Ah, it wasn’t the cat; it was a house mouse – twice as large as ordinary house mice.  Damn, it was chewing the old man’s heel!  I saw the white bones, but no blood.  The house mouse was excited, chewing loudly – kakaka – as if nibbling the world’s most delicious bones.
‘Story of the Slums’, p.4 (Yale University Press, 2020)

There are hints here of a distorted examination of life in the slums, the pollution, sickness and poverty contrasted with dreams of what used to be, but for me it outstayed its welcome, and by the final pieces we’re going round in circles, with the story tailing off weakly.

However, I was far more impressed by the stories, and it seems as if Can’s genius/madness is more palatable in shorter bursts.  Several of these pieces are parables told by animals, such as ‘Our Human Neighbours’, in which a middle-aged male magpie offers up his views on the local people, and ‘The Old Cicada’, which see a philosophical loner watching other cicadas fall into a spider’s web.  Meanwhile, in ‘I am a Willow Tree’ , it’s the trees’ turn to have their say, with the poor willow keeping a watchful eye on the movements of a gardener.

Most stories, though, focus on people experiencing bizarre events in ordinary places and feature the writer’s trademark surreal scenes.  Several, including ‘Euphoria’ and ‘Crow Mountain’, have the protagonists walking around a seemingly normal building, only for their senses to betray them, leaving them to explore a place that defies the laws of physics:

This time, my voice was back to normal.  But I had taken only four or five steps.  How could I have reached the second floor so quickly?  And since it was the second floor of a building, how could there be a slope?
‘Crow Mountain’, p.181

As is the case here, the protagonist is often in the dark, but that works well as the reader usually is, too…

Another common theme is that of a protagonist setting off on a journey, one that becomes ever more confusing.  For example, there’s the woman in ‘Her Old Home’, invited to return to an old house by the woman who moved in after her, only to discover that her old neighbourhood is familiar, yet oddly altered.  The same sense of unease is felt in ‘The Swamp’, which has a man roaming his hometown in search of a legendary swamp.  There are clues everywhere, even if they often lead to dead ends, and there’s no shortage of mysterious guides showing him the way and urging him on.

For newcomers, I Live in the Slums will undoubtedly seem bizarre, if not impenetrable, but those who’ve tried Can’s fiction before will feel, if not at home, at least in familiar territory.  There are the usual cryptic conversations, full of non-sequiturs, and an abundance of voices you overhear discussing you, without your being able to see or know who’s talking.  Most stories take us on journeys through streets that should be familiar, but are slightly strange, and the whole provides an effect akin to wandering through a dream where everything is slightly off, but where you’re not awake enough to actually consider that important.

One way to approach Can’s work is to grasp at clues and perceive allegories, perhaps where there are none.  ‘Shadow People’, a strange piece populated by shadows who have thinned out to avoid the harsh sun, could be hinting at the hardship experienced by immigrants, or country people in the city, having to fit in.  ‘The Swamp’ might be a story showing how modern people struggle to connect with the past.  ‘Our Human Neighbours’ may well be examining progress, and what we gain and lose from it.  Then again, it might just be about birds…

One particularly interesting piece is ‘Sin’, a story that first appeared in 1996 (most pieces here were published after 2010), which while clearly Can’s work, is a slightly more conventional effort.  This story is centred around a woman and a box left to her by her father, one she’s never opened, and her cousin’s visit provides a catalyst for the woman’s agonising doubts about what to do with this legacy.  It makes for an enjoyable story of familial guilt, and also perhaps offers insights into an earlier stage of the writer’s style, before a shift to more dreamlike scenes.

Overall, I Live in the Slums is an interesting collection by a unique writer.  At over 300 pages, it’s far more value for money than some of the other longlisted titles, but ironically it probably would have benefited from being shorter, as omitting the novella and a couple of the stories might have made for a tighter, more focused collection.  Still, let’s not fool ourselves.  It’s not worth second-guessing someone like Can Xue, and we’re unlikely to ever really understand what her intentions are:

“Zhu Mei, I’ve come to say good-bye.  Visiting my old home has made me feel great, and it has enriched me, too.  But – I don’t know how to put it – it seems I experienced everything here through a layer of gauze.  Nothing was very clear.  Now I feel excited, but I don’t know how to explain that.  Can you understand what I’m feeling?”
‘Her Old Home’, p.253

Oh, yes – I understand completely… 😉

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
While Can’s idiosyncratic style isn’t for everyone, I do enjoy her flights of fancy, and as mentioned above, I think her fiction actually works best in small doses.  I Live in the Slums does have its low points, but overall I enjoyed this collection, probably more than the two novels of hers I’ve tried, and though many readers will no doubt disagree, I’m more than happy to include it in my personal top six.

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Obviously, Can’s world of whimsy proved too much for the official judges, who preferred to run back to the comfort of a few shorter, simpler books, instead 😉

Well, that was interesting, to say the least, but it’s time to say goodbye to our Chinese friends (and all the animals we spent time with) as we set off on the next leg of our journey, which once again involves a bit of time travel.  This time around, we’re heading back to the sixteenth century to meet a fascinating man with a bit of an anger management issue.  Mind you, he has every right to let off steam given the state of the world, but we’d better be quick if we want to catch him – this isn’t a war that’s going to last too long…

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