Thursday, March 28, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 24

E.J. Levy on Ha Jin's UNDER THE RED FLAG

Ha Jin was a poet with two collections of poetry already published when he won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, but the 12 short stories collected in his prize-winning book, Under the Red Flag (1997), have always put me more in mind of a painter’s work. A Chinese Chagall, to be exact, conjuring a mythic village life in which mix animals and humans, celebration and sorrow, in which both people and beasts seem capable of fantastic and terrible feats.

The stories’ names often have the mystery and descriptive force of painting titles: “Winds and Clouds over a Funeral,” “In Broad Daylight,” or “Again the Spring Breeze Blew.” But the painterly quality of these stories comes from the fact that almost all are distilled to essential images and marvelously visual, as when the cremation of a grandmother is described thus: “…the flames grew lower and lower as the whirring in the furnace stopped. By and by, an empty chamber could be seen through the small hole. A worker opened the furnace, in which remained a layer of ashes that looked like broken clamshells.”

Although it has been 15 years since the collection was published, these stories feel entirely fresh, like urgent news; they remain captivating and timeless, in part because of their folkloric cast. One of the pleasures of reading Jin’s collection is the glimpse it seems to offer of post-Revolution village life. Although Jin seems less documentarian than alchemist, mixing details of village life--bride prices, gang rapes, pig breeding, and the pleasures of sorghum wine and stewed hairtail, jellied bean curd and fresh jellyfish, mourning rituals, and picture-books rented from a bookstand at a village fair—with the stark unsentimental storytelling of Grimm’s fairytales.

Here post-Revolution village life is revealed in tales both grisly and mythic: In the first story, “In Broad Daylight,” two village boys witness a local beauty put on trial for seducing men away from their wives, but the trial reveals the community’s character as much as the defendant’s; through the Red Guards’ interrogation, we learn that the accused seductress has been raped and remains beloved by her cuckolded husband, who is the trial’s true victim; in ”Sovereignty,” a neighbor asks for help breeding his sow, only to inadvertently provoke a competition between his neighbors’ boars—one domestic, one foreign--which ultimately damages them all; in “Man to Be,” a young soldier engaged to the town’s most eligible young woman loses his fiancé and his prospects when he refuses to join in a gang rape, which reveals him (in his neighbors’ eyes) not as honorable but weak. Jin stories reveal both the tenderness and cruelty that distinguish village life, perhaps all rural life, where one is more keenly aware of the fact that survival is born of slaughter. At the same time, Jin’s villages are (Flag Village, Horse Village) are wonderfully particular.

In contrast to the didactic cast of many folktales, Jin’s operate outside easy morality; many of his stories conclude with a deadpan abruptness that adds—rather than detracts—from their power. These sudden endings seem an apt aesthetic given the Chinese history he lived through as a young soldier, reminding us that difficulty is rarely redemptive, that suffering does not necessarily instruct or ennoble, that change (whether political or personal) can be as sudden and pointless as death.

Ultimately, Jin’s emphasis on village traditions bespeaks the vitality of folk culture, despite the impress of political ideology. His stories attest to the endurance of those most human faults and virtues—love and jealousy, cruelty and class difference, drunkenness and rape, tenderness and sorrow—in spite of revolutionary change, regardless of the color of the flag overhead.

E. J. Levy is the author of LOVE, IN THEORY (2012), which is a finalist for the Edmund White Award and the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Paris Review, Orion, the New York Times, and Best American Essays, among other places.