The April 3rd Incident serves as a perfect gateway into a vast and deep national literature.
Morning dawns. An unexpected knock comes at the door. A man bursts in, knocking the door to the ground, and tells the narrator his friend has died. The narrator does not recognize the name of the “friend.” He tells the man he has the wrong apartment. But the man at the door insists otherwise and drags the narrator to the house of grieving. At the house, the mother of the dead “friend” sobs uncontrollably. The narrator, in order to console her, asks as though he really did know the dead man – whom, lifting the shroud, he confirms is a stranger. The mother tells the narrator that he is her son now. In order to avoid the awkwardness required to extricate himself from this situation, the narrator simply keeps quiet and submits to the filial and mourning duties that will be required of him for the remainder of his life. Before these duties begin, he will need to have his door repaired, though. This is the plot (a word to be thrown around loosely, here) of “As the North Wind Howled,” the first story in Yu Hua’s collection The April 3rd Incident. The outline of this simple, six-page story will give the reader a good idea of whether this collection is of interest to them.
Yu Hua is among the cohort of Chinese writers that began their careers in the midst of so-called post-Mao liberalization. Comprised of stories published at the beginning of Yu’s career in the late 1980s and early 1990s, The April 3rd Incident has the energy that propulsion that often marks works by up-and-comers in any literary scene. Yu’s later career has been marked by a more direct turn toward social themes and psychological narratives (criticism of both Maoist and present-day China has won him plenty of fans among Western critics), but in the beginning, his work was indebted to Kafka, Borges etc. – all the usual suspects that get pulled out when stories are vaguely “weird.” Yu’s best work in this collection stands up to the comparison. But other than serving as an “if you like that, you’ll like this” reading recommendation, the comparisons do not reveal anything about what makes Yu’s short fiction worthwhile.
The title story takes some of the ingredients of the first – the appearance of a strange man, inexplicable door-knocking, the moments between waking and dreaming – and spins them out to near-novella length. The plot may be about the planning of a surprise party, or it may be about a murder, or it may be about the dissolution of the protagonist’s mind. Yu enhances this paranoid uncertainty by repeating motifs and moments and scenes with slight variations, making it unclear whether something is “really” happening, or whether it is a dream. Sometimes the protagonist will have a dream about the next day only to watch those events play out almost exactly how he dreamed them. As for chronology, it is impossible to tell whether a single day keeps repeating or whether all the days look the same. The date of the “incident” referred to in the title also happens to be the author’s birthday.
This repetition carries over to “Death Chronicle.” A truck driver on his route recalls a day ten years prior when he hit a boy on a bicycle while driving a narrow mountain road, sending the child into a reservoir where he surely drowned. As he recalls this scene, he thinks of his own son, now the same age as that dead boy. Then, the events repeat – this time he hits a young girl. But his resolve fails him, and he tries to get help for her in the village. What results is perhaps the most shocking and confrontational moment in the collection.
Here is where Yu pulls off a fascinating trick. The following story is titled “In Memory of Miss Willow Yang.” Structurally, this story repeats itself. Numbered sections (1-4) seem to relate slight variations on the previous group of numbered sections. They all relate to a town called Smoke where, during the revolution, a nationalist officer placed ten bombs in an intricate pattern in order to devastate the communist forces when they arrived. In the present day – which may be May 1988 or May 1998 – several characters talk about these bombs. Concurrently another character receives a vital cornea replacement after an accident in order to restore his sight. He learns that the organ donation came from the Willow Yang of the title. But, also, it seems that he marries this woman – or her ghost – and then she disappears. Through all of this, the reader begins to suspect that Miss Yang is, in fact, the girl hit by the truck from the previous story.
The last three stories are variations on the theme of love. Unfortunately, they do not have the same effect as the earlier stories in the book. “Love Story” flips back and forth between a first and third person narrator as a husband recalls the day he and his girlfriend (his wife, in the present) escaped to an out-of-the-way town to get an abortion in the midst of a conversation where he pours out his resentment on her for the predictability of their life ten years later. “A History of Two People” – the best of this bunch – plays with dreams again. A man and a woman who grow up together see reversals in their social situations through the Revolution and post-Mao eras while sharing their dreams – until those dreams themselves are gone. “Summer Typhoon” is another lengthy story and does, like the other long pieces, seem to remix aspects of the stories that come previous to it. It does this far less than the others while demonstrating a clumsiness with characterization and atmosphere.
The collection, overall, is beguiling and worthwhile. The language occasionally dips into clunky similes or seemingly awkward baroque phrasings. Whether this is present in the original, or a result of translation, I cannot say. However, these rough edges tend to enhance the otherworldly effect of the stories, giving them sometimes strange rhythms or slowing time down to dwell on a single elaborated image. Chinese literature certainly does not need to demonstrate its worthiness to Western audiences in order to be legitimated, but it is fortunate that we live in a time where more works in Chinese are finding their way into English. Yu Hua’s best work in The April 3rd Incident serves as a perfect gateway into a vast and deep national literature.