September 26 through October 3 this year is “Banned Books Week“! Good thing someone one told me! So how fitting that I was lucky enough to receive Border Town, the pre-Communist Revolution masterpiece by Shen Congwen (1902-1988), who although virtually unknown in the West, is considered one of China’s best modern writers. Often compared to Faulkner, Chekhov, and Pearl S. Buck (!), Shen (and his works) fell victim to Mao’s reign of terror against intellectuals.
Originally published in 1934, this slim volume follows the seemingly pastoral life of a lovely young girl, Cuicui, just coming into her teens, who has been raised by her doting elderly grandfather since the love suicide of first her soldier father, then her too-young mother just after her birth. Grandfather is the rural town’s head ferryman, a stalwart working man who will not take any pay from his passengers because he is convinced that the government already treats him fairly with a regular wage.
Maturing gracefully into her adolescence, Cuicui finds herself the object of admiring attention, especially from two brothers who are both almost instantly entranced by her innocent beauty. When tragedy strikes the older brother, Grandfather becomes dismayed for Cuicui’s uncertain future as he grows more and more aware of his own mortality.
Kinkley, a Chinese history professor considered the leading American authority on Shen, offers a new, annotated translation of a simple, resonating story about youth and old age, and the uncertainties we all face. His foreword also provides a quick but illuminating glimpse into early 20th-century Chinese literature, as well.
P.S. Have to clarify about Banned Books Week per comment from recent visitor (thanks very much). BBW, which happens the last week in September (since 1982), actually CELEBRATES our freedom to choose what we want to read. To find out more, check out the American Library Association’s BBW pages or BannedBooksWeek.org.
Published: 1934 (original), 2009 (new English translation)