This is my first time reading anything by Ba Jin, and this collection of tales seems to be somewhat hard to come by. I ended up discovering it upon one of the discount paperback shelves in Half Price Books, where it had been marked down to something like 50 cents. It’s unfortunate that Ba Jin seems so difficult to come by, at least in translation, for this collection of tales was quite good. Not perfect mind you, but quite good — certainly good enough for me to recommend.
The first thing that stands out about his writing is not only his crisp use of words and his observations, but that he takes on themes and perspectives one might not expect from a Chinese writer. Why do I note this? Well, in the publishing industry, publishers have this condescending attitude that only someone from a certain culture can write about that same culture. Thus, one would assume all these tales to be about Chinese people and revolutions and all of that, right? Hell, even the back of this book gets it wrong: “These stories by the celebrated Chinese novelist Ba Jin are all set in Old China in the thirties.” Nope. Clearly marketing departments don’t read the books they are attempting to market. Ba Jin takes on many different voices, perspectives and the writing has a variety of translators (a different one for each tale) and generally avoids cliché.
One of the most memorable tales is called “The Electric Chair.” It is set not in China, but in Massachusetts and involves two Italians who have been sentenced to death. One of the men believes he is innocent, and yet we don’t really know if he is telling the truth or not, since there is no replay of the crime. “The Electric Chair” is a highly character driven tale that philosophically assesses life and death and how it weighs against the progression of science and time. The observations about the chair itself are some of the most notable passages:
“The electric chair of polished brass, placed squarely within the chamber like a throne. This was the invention of modern science. It could take a man’s life. And the helmet-shaped brass skull cap. Could it really ease all his thoughts?”
The prisoner then has his last words, where he declares his innocence, but as he is doing so, he can feel the others around him rejecting his claim. Earlier, he speaks about the years spent on death row and the thousands of days and how suddenly, when left with only seventy hours, how quickly it moves, in retrospect, as opposed to when he was actually living through it. This tale not only tackles ideas behind crime and punishment, life and death, but also our perceptions of time.
Another memorable tale, “The General” involves a cranky Russian general that leaves readers with a powerful ending involving the lack of communication. This theme is again touched upon in a tale called “When the Snow Melted,” where a quarreling couple is used to express aspects that often go overlooked. This tale also has a memorable end, which ties into the beginning quite well.
All the tales in this collection are strong, save for the title story, “Autumn in Spring,” which is still a good work, only it runs a bit too long. Most of Ba Jin’s tales are told crisply and he does not waste a lot of words. In fact, his work reminds me a little of Nagai Kafu’s American Stories — not in terms of themes or ideas, but in structure and narrative. Both writers tackle different approaches and their tales usually contain strong endings. The only definitively bad tale in Ba Jin’s collection is the last one, titled “My Life and Literature.” It’s not really a tale but a personal essay where the writer is distilling his thoughts on what he believes art and writing should be. Thankfully, it is short. My criticism is not that I am in disagreement (even though I happen to be), but that his beliefs are just silly. It’s an example where sometimes it’s not always a good thing to read what some writer believes his or her intention to be, since ultimately intent is meaningless. Only the words matter.
This final essay reads both didactically and tritely. For example: “Readers are moved by the life reflected in a story and the fate of the chief characters. This means I oppose fabrication, deception and flowery language. What I hate most are those glory-seeking writers who deceive the public with their lies,” he notes.
Ba Jin doesn’t bother to mention who these “glory-seeking” writers are, but he’s pretty much just spelling out his list of biases and what he “hates.” Ok, so what? “Deceive the public with their lies?” Fiction IS lies. That doesn’t mean there can’t be some universal “truths” within said lies, but so what? Truth or lie is irrelevant to whether the art works or not. “Readers are moved by the life reflected in a story and the fate of the chief characters.” I would agree with this, yet his next two sentences come out of nowhere. What this final essay reminded me of is Leo Tolstoy’s crap essay called “What is Art” where Tolstoy states the whole great art must equal great politics shtick. Yawn.
This Ba Jin collection is well worth the read for any fan of the short story, or anyone interested in Chinese literature. Yet ignore his screed in the last essay — his book and my time would have benefited had it been omitted. Thankfully, it is short lived, both in pages and in mind.