Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Somehow I never got around to reading Shen Congwen until just recently.
Unless you’re Chinese/Taiwanese, you have probably never heard of him. And yet in 1988 he almost won the Nobel Prize in literature. The Nobel Committee had essentially agreed to give him the prize when its members made an inquiry to the Chinese government: Where was Mr. Shen, they wanted to know. And more to the point, was he still alive? The Nobel Prize, you see, could only be award to living persons.
The Chinese government responded that they knew of no one by that name. And yet he was one of the most important Chinese writers of the 20th century. Further investigation revealed that Shen had died of a heart attack a short time earlier. Committee member and famed Swedish Sinologist Göran Malmqvist pleaded with his fellow members that an exception be made for an exceptional figure, but to no avail.
And yet honestly, if Shen knew that he’d been denied the Nobel on account of, well, dying, he probably wouldn’t have much cared. Sure it was unfortunate — what do you call the opposite of serendipity? But too much tragedy preceded — so I imagine — for him truly to care about something as trivial as an award.
They knew of no one by that name, they said. It made sense then. For much of the latter half of his life, Shen was as though a non-person. After achieving great fame as a young man in the 1920s and ‘30s, becoming not only a respected writer but also a professor despite having only finished elementary school, Shen stopped writing fiction upon the Communist takeover in 1949. He took a job at a history museum, humbly giving tours and lectures to visitors. When the Cultural Revolution struck, he was made a janitor and spent years scrubbing toilets. One time the “revolutionaries” came in and burned the museum’s precious volumes in front of him — perhaps the greatest torture that one could inflict on a man of letters. It was not until 1978, when he was 76 years old, that “political rehabilitation” came.
They knew of no one by that name, they said. And yet today, the house he grew up in in his hometown of Fenghuang in Hunan is a museum dedicated to him. I would know: I visited that old house with the Shen family memorabilia at the beginning of my wanderings in the summer of 2015.
His novella that I read recently, Border Town, draws deep inspiration from Fenghuang itself. Indeed, the titular border town is a fictionalized version of Fenghuang. And now I much regret not having read it before I made my visit there. And I search my memories for every detail of it that I might remember. So lively is his description of life in that small but picturesque town on the river that one wants to locate every real-life scene that might have inspired him, every nook and every cul-de-sac in the old town that breathed life into his gentle prose.
Reading Border Town, this longing to go back to see the town of the past is irresistible. Even if today so much of the town is dedicated to tourism, even if at night the thumping music emanating from dance clubs in old houses built atop wooden stilts along the river threaten to collapse the same.
Some writers are tied to places this way. Faulkner will always be of the American South. James Joyce will be forever and inextricably tied to a vision of Dublin. And Shen Congwen will always be the novelist from Fenghuang.
Border Town is something of a love story with a tragic overtone. A young girl who lives with her grandfather, a salt-of-the-earth ferryman, falls into a love triangle with the two sons of a wealthy local family. And nothing ever quite works out. Between the old custom of arranged marriages and the new practice of love matches, between the ferryman’s lack of finesse and the girl’s shyness, the timing is always off, and the circumstances are always wrong.
It’s a bit like Shen himself. An ill-timed heart attack deprived him of the Nobel. The fate of his nation demoted a celebrated author to the janitorial staff. It’s certainly like life that nothing ever quite pans out the way we would like. And in my own small way, it’s oddly fitting that I should have visited Fenghuang before I got around to reading him and thus miss out on fully appreciating the romantic border town of his imagination.
And yet for the all the tragedy of Shen’s life, in death he has reclaimed a measure of the reputation he deserves. Those who once might have castigated him now sell tickets to his house. For all the foreboding and quiet melancholy of Border Town, the novella ends on an ambiguous note. Though the older son drowns and the ferryman falls ill and dies, the girl awaits the return of the younger son with whom she may yet find the happiness she so surely deserves.
“Fenghuang” in Chinese means “phoenix.” There is much to be said for the capacity to rise from the ashes.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."