Reviewing books written a long time ago by dead people is great. I’ll never run into Lao She, author of Mr. Ma and His Son and Cat Country, at any horrible cocktail party and have to explain my review. I’ve also got the benefit an omniscient historical eye to examine in it as part of a literary trend
But it also begs the question, why review something written 80 years ago? Two reasons. One, Penguin Classics sent it to us in the mail (clearly China Real Time got copies as well). Two, my colleague Yining Su and I both really enjoy early twentieth century Chinese literature. It’s an interesting time where a maelstrom of ideas and conflicts created a rich literary landscape that China has simply not seen since. So here are our star-studded, critically acclaimed, Shiva-and-Roeper-eight-thumbs-up reviews.
Mr. Ma & Son
Mr. Ma & Son tells the story of Ma Zeren and Ma Wei, two Chinese immigrants to London come to tend their deceased uncle’s shop. The two men are foils for one another. The father, a hapless Confucian whose outdated attitudes provide for much of the books somewhat awkward humor, is constantly seeking to manage and understand his son, Ma Wei. Ma Wei, on the other hand, is learning English and is trying to build a life and business in the unforgiving streets of London. Although Ma Wei is quite transparently an imperfect mirror of the author Lao She, who himself spent years in London, the book nonetheless offers an interesting perspective into life in England around the turn of the century and into how China views itself.
The way this is all delivered is what makes the book so gripping. The writing in both English and Chinese is dripping with a wonderful sense of knowing irony. Ma Wei falls in love with the racist daughter of the pair’s landlord, Ma Zeren finds himself attracted to the vapid and nervy landlord herself, and all this misplaced confused lust happens while each flounders around missing the possibilities that come their way. Personally, I’m going to flash this book around next time I hear that Chinese people don’t “get” irony. See, I’ll say, this one guy in the early 1900s did and then I’ll kick’em in the knob (irony).
Obligatory note about the translation — it’s really quite good. I cracked open the Confucian Institute’s very literal translation, and the Penguin one compared quite favorably, taking the English and giving it the literary flair that Lao She’s original Chinese had in spades. So yeah, read it.
Cat Country is a science fiction novel, but that description is rather misleading. Sure, there’s a man flying and crashing a spaceship, but Cat Country is hardly a novel. What plot exists is contained within a few chapters at the start and end of the book. The rest is simply a thorough description of the allegorical Martian Cat People society: a harsh, biting satire of 1930s China.
Cat Country begins shortly after the unnamed Chinese Earthman narrator is stranded on Mars after a spaceship crash that kills his best friend, the only other member of the spaceship’s crew, and discovers that Mars is populated by Cat People. The Earthman is at first kidnapped by one of the Cat People, a cowardly aristocrat named Scorpion, then makes an uneasy truce with him. Our Earth hero proceeds to learn all that he can about Cat Country, the particular country on Mars that he has landed on, from its language, to its history, its education system, its poetry, its politics, its gender hierarchy, and, most intriguingly, its relations with foreigners and foreign countries, all of which serves as a darkly satirical take on China at the time.
Some of the satire still rings true. Anyone who has sat in a taxi with a sign telling you to use a seatbelt when no seatbelt is there to be used will appreciate the education system in Cat Country, which awards elementary students university degrees on the first day of school because the education system is terrible and there are no jobs anyway, so might as well.
Cat Country was considered too pessimistic at the time it was published. It is easy to see why. Things do not end well for Cat Country, and when the problem with a country is not only with its laws, its institutions, its culture, or its tradition, but with the very character of its people, it’s not easy to see how things can change.
Buy them here:
Mr Ma & Son