In Writing: hidden undercurrent

 

hidden undercurrent
What lies beneath
Writers’ undercurrents: in the novel you’ve just read — or in your own writing?

Sometimes it’s only after finishing a novel that you become aware of its undercurrent.  For instance, in Dead Water (Simon Ings) the fast paced plot involves the protagonist in a deadly international chase after an evil target; but the undercurrent is the dangerous potential of shipping containers which cruise the globe; an understandable preoccupation.

You may be more unaware of hidden undercurrents in your own novels.  After a while without reading your work again, consider what you’ve actually ‘said’. It may be a romance or a crime story, but what you have allowed to happen in the plot, or between the characters – such as unexpected capitulation –  or within the protagonist him/herself, can suggest unspoken drives or attitudes in your writing.

Even when there’s a distinct variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.

Take two important writers Kasuo Ishiguro and Elif Safak. In 2015 they happened both to be speaking at the Bath Literary Festival, but on separate days, and were probably unlikely to have conferred. However, both authors had a ‘burying’ undercurrent in their novels.

buried
Fons Heijnsbroek

Ishiguro’s first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, is a fantasy. Its fantastic beings form the plot but the ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters. Ishiguro suggested all his novels had an underflow of this unspoken, part-forgotten material.

Talking of The Architect’s Apprentice, Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, saying so much has been suppressed. Sadly, historic artefacts are not being preserved perhaps because, then, uncomfortable events in history are more easily ignored; the role of the woman, the existence of minorities.

Shafak said that there is little urban memory:  residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. She mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.

This strong feeling about burying discomforting events and feelings, drives these authors’ writing; the undercurrent enriches the work. What undercurrent can be detected from your writing?

ARABIA – Walter de la Mare

ARABIA.

What is left to say?

images

 

This was the first poem I loved, and it’s still my favourite. Here the country is the character, and like all well-drawn characters it is complex and has its dark side.

 

Far are the shades of Arabia,
Where the Princes ride at noon,
‘Mid the verdurous vales and thickets,
Under the ghost of the moon;
And so dark is that vaulted purple
Flowers in the forest rise
And toss into blossom ‘gainst the phantom stars
Pale in the noonday skies.

Sweet is the music of Arabia
In my heart, when out of dreams
I still in the thin clear mirk of dawn
Descry her gliding streams;
Hear her strange lutes on the green banks
Ring loud with the grief and delight
Of the dim-silked, dark-haired Musicians
In the brooding silence of night.

They haunt me — her lutes and her forests;
No beauty on earth I see
But shadowed with that dream recalls
Her loveliness to me:
Still eyes look coldly upon me,
Cold voices whisper and say —
‘He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia,
They have stolen his wits away.’

ARABIA – Walter de la Mare

 

 

Chinese short stories reviewed

Chinese short stories: Shi Cheng -Short Stories from Urban China– edited by Liu Ding, Yinghua Lu and Ra Page.

 It was purely coincidental that just as I finished reading the last story in this collection, the government announced a relaxation of visa restrictions to Chinese nationals with the rejoinder that British attitudes towards the Chinese might be altered. Notwithstanding the human rights issues, I certainly didn’t expect them to characterize the national psyche. Never having visited China I had little knowledge.

What struck me in reading these several stories was a sense of familiarity with the humour and irony of the authors.

 

Chinese seniors playing cards
card playing prevails

This collection gives a rare flavour of China and the Introduction is just as important. How the collection came about is fascinating and gives some insight into Chinese life. Each author in this collection is already highly rated in China if unknown in the UK. Each story comes from a different city in China, with its own climate and atmosphere. The characters range from those on the far fringe of respectability to those who have enjoyed an excellent education.

To do the book justice, each story really deserves an individual reviewed, but here are my favourites:

Wittily, Jie Chen writes about a girl `rushing’ to prevent a murder. Her sense of urgency is constantly hampered by her make-up, double-checking of door locks, street sales of passport/ diary/dagger while simultaneously she mentally constructs scenarios for her friend’s crisis. This very amusing ‘literary chick-lit’ reveals some of the inconveniences and hazards in Chengdu. Josh Sternberg needs congratulating for his translation: he captures ditziness in an way immediately recognizable in the UK.

He does an equally good job on Zhang Zhihua’s story, a clever association between the agonizing wisdom tooth which should be removed and the state of the owner’s marriage. Sternberg manages to make clear the play on a Chinese word which means either `childish’ or `wisdom’ without spoiling the narrative style of the tale.

Hang Dong’s beautifully written story, `This Moron is Dead’ is the ultimate in bleak irony, social comment and literary style. I loved his use of cherry blossom as a symbol on several levels. It only exists on one street in the city; it only blossoms very briefly – a reference to past Japanese intrusion?

The Chinese sense of humour is best shown by Diaou Dou’s `Squatting’, which had me laughing out loud – inappropriately, as I was in the dentist’s waiting room. The earnest educated group aims to benefit their community by polite approaches to those in power. The description of their efforts and the authoritarian outcomes reveals the flavour of frustrating everyday life in Shenyang. Perhaps all our wars could be solved by the use of ridicule. Diaou Dou’s writing reminded me of Jonathan Swift.

In Xu Zechen’s `Wheels are Round’, the poverty and life-style of labourers on the fringe of Beijing is told with a hilarity just short of bitterness. The mechanics look towards the, for them, unattainable city where largesse falls from the sky and fortunes lie awaiting to be picked up from the pavement. With months of ingenuity the main character pieces together a car, the zenith of his ambition, using scrap from the garage where he works, and is consistently defrauded. The car’s fortune is shown with the irony that characterizes these writers.

Altogether, it was this irony and irrepressible humour that lent such a warm feeling of kindred spirit.

Most readers will surely enjoy these urban tales by masterful Chinese writers as much as I did. There aren’t enough short story collections on the bookshelves of libraries and bookshops. Comma Press is benefiting the reading public by seeking to remedy this situation.

The paperback is available from Amazon, or better still, ordered from your local independent bookseller. I bought it from Mr B’s Emporium in Bath:

  • Publisher: +Comma Press (30 April 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 190558346X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905583461