Dylan Suher reviews Ma Bole’s Second Life by Xiao Hong

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Open Letter Books, 2018)

On one hand, the history of modern Chinese literature is full of tantalizing hypotheticals­: What if Lu Xun had lived a few more decades? What if Lao She had stayed in the United States in 1949? What if Shen Congwen had won the Nobel Prize in 1988? On the other hand, with a little thought, it is not difficult to guess what might have happened; the possible outcomes exist on a fairly narrow spectrum of co-option, marginalization, and persecution. The contrast between intriguing possibility and depressing probability is perhaps widest of all with Xiao Hong, who, in her brief thirty-one years on this planet, managed to write some of the finest Chinese fiction of the twentieth century. I wonder what would have happened to her had she lived another few decades, but I doubt it would have been anything good. Xiao Hong, like her admirer and supporter Lu Xun, was never one to toe the line. She fled an arranged marriage in 1930 at the age of eighteen and, pregnant with her former husband’s child, caught the attention of the leftist journalist Xiao Jun. She soon became both his writing collaborator and his common-law wife. The couple ended up in Shanghai, where Xiao Hong won acclaim among leftist literary circles for her novel Field of Life and Death, a completely unmerciful portrait of life in Manchuria before and after the Japanese invasion. Infidelity and tensions over Xiao Jun’s increasingly doctrinaire politics created a rift between him and Xiao Hong, who, now pregnant with Xiao Jun’s child, moved to Hong Kong with her new lover, the writer Duanmu Hongliang. By the time she arrived in Hong Kong in 1940, years of peripatetic living had taken their toll, and she was hospitalized with a series of respiratory ailments. On her deathbed, she (allegedly) took another lover.

What would have happened if Xiao Hong had survived to live and write in the People’s Republic? Where other leftist writers aimed at safe targets like Japanese warmongers or evil landlords, Xiao Hong was more concerned with the suffering caused by general human cruelty, or—perhaps even more untenably in the PRC—the patriarchy. In her writing and in her life, Xiao Hong stubbornly insisted on her independence, so I doubt she would have bent the knee at Yan’an, the way Ding Ling and her ex-husband Xiao Jun did. And even if she had, she almost certainly wouldn’t have been spared from persecution. Ding Ling and Xiao Jun, after all, still ended up doing hard labor, and Xiao Hong would have received the same treatment or worse. Some stories are better without a proper ending.

I’m afraid the same is true of Ma Bole’s Second Life, an unfinished serial novel by Xiao Hong, translated and completed by Howard Goldblatt (Open Letter Books, 2018). Ma Bole is a picaresque tale of the flight of the title character and his family during World War II from Qingdao to Shanghai to Wuhan to Chongqing to Hong Kong. Like Chichikov, the hero of another unfinished comic picaresque, the title character Ma Bole is an icon: a flat archetype painted so exactly that he is instantly familiar. A selfish, spoiled, terminally useless failson of a rich family, Ma is insulated from the national crisis by his privilege and treats it like a one-man show in which he is the star. Convinced that war is on its way, he preemptively and unnecessarily moves into a squalid hotel room in Shanghai and shifts to a diet of fried rice, because he feels “that a refugee should live like one.” When the war really does break out, he crows about the need for resistance as he whiles away the days studying Esperanto and pursuing a quixotic scheme to sell cheap meat buns in support of the war effort. Watching soldiers march by every day, he thinks about volunteering for the army but concludes that “being a soldier was nothing to get excited about . . . for with all the time he spent watching these soldiers, he could almost be considered one of them.”

Like an old joke, this novel relies on reliable stereotypes, repetition, and stasis. Ma Bole’s snobbish habit of exclaiming “Bloody Chinese!” when anything gets in his way is an easy punchline at the beginning of the novel but acquires a profoundly ironic pathos by the end. The peak of Ma Bole is the series of attempts by the Ma family to leave a worse-than-fleabag hotel in Shanghai and board a train to Wuhan, an episode that sublimely straddles the line between slapstick farce and a realistic depiction of wartime panic. As a novel about how some people never change, about the interminable limbo of the refugee, it’s best when it stands still.

For that reason, I’m not satisfied with Howard Goldblatt’s efforts to give the novel a conclusion. Ever since Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize, Goldblatt has been treated by mainland China as a kind of Theotokos for China’s miraculous literary triumph, his translations scrutinized by a small army of scholars looking for the secret to his success. No translator could live up to that hype, including Goldblatt. There are some off notes here, but he’s also a better translator than his detractors give him credit for, and he excels at producing uncomplicated sentences that don’t distract the reader. That may not always be what you want in a translation, but it’s also a standard that many translations don’t manage to meet.

Goldblatt came across Xiao Hong by chance during his dissertation research at Indiana University in the 1970s. Over the past forty years, he’s translated most of her work and has published a biography of her. Even if he weren’t so dedicated to Xiao Hong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with extending the collaboration that is translation a bit further than usual, so long as there’s transparency. But this is a novel about an unheroic person living in defiance of history, and the prologue and epilogue Goldblatt adds, in which a Hong Kong historian finds the “manuscript” of Ma Bole in 1985 and gives it to Bole’s now-grown son, literally makes the story a document in a historical archive. The dates-and-battles history that forms the background of Xiao Hong’s narrative is awkwardly highlighted in Goldblatt’s bookends, in lines such as: “Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government has just signed a joint declaration to return the British Colony of Hong Kong to China in 1997, when the ninety-nine-year lease runs out.” In Goldblatt’s version, Ma Bole is the sum of his historical context, the kind of hypothetical character you might see in a history textbook.

But the Ma Bole of Xiao Hong’s novel feels less like a product of his time than a Hero of Our Time. As I laughed at Ma Bole playing the refugee by slumming it in a cheap hotel, I thought of the person who used to tweet hysterically on a daily basis, “I have not been arrested by anyone in Donald Trump’s government. This tweet will repeat tomorrow if it remains true.” Our moment is full of Ma Boles: the “hashtag resistance,” panicked by the current crisis but privileged enough to passively watch it unfold, who constantly call for “resistance” but are perilously hazy about what that might entail beyond daily posts on social media. The Ma Boles of the world aren’t exactly sympathetic, but they’re essentially harmless, and they do deserve our pity. Their heart is in the right place; they’re fundamentally correct that things are bad and will get worse if we don’t do anything about it; and if things get very bad, they will suffer as well. We should wish these people well, and hope they’ll make it out alright. But I think about what typically happened to people like Ma Bole, and what probably would have happened to Xiao Hong, and then consider the possible fates of the Ma Boles of today, and I must admit—I’m not anxious to know how their story ends.