Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China

Image of Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China
Release Date: 
January 21, 2014
Reviewed by: 

“. . . unsentimental vignettes of the lives of ordinary people in the Chinese hinterland enmeshed in webs of deception, adultery, betrayal, loss, and cruelty.”

Yu Hua (1960–) grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, lives in Beijing, and is the author of five novels, six short story collections, and four essay collections. Formerly a dentist, he is considered one of the best practitioners of avant-garde fiction in China, and his works have been widely translated into other languages. He is the first Chinese writer to receive the James Joyce Foundation Award (2002). His novel Brothers (2008) was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China is a collection of thirteen stories originally penned between 1993 and 1998; many of them have been published elsewhere before being anthologized in this collection. They have been ably translated from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr, professor of Chinese at Pomona College, CA, and a scholar of Chinese fiction of the Ming and Qing dynasties as well as of contemporary Chinese fiction.

Yu Hua’s highly suggestive and provocative short stories capture, in the author’s own distinctively minimalist style, the subtle nuances of a modern China still seeking to break away from the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. They offer unsentimental vignettes of the lives of ordinary people in the Chinese hinterland enmeshed in webs of deception, adultery, betrayal, loss, and cruelty.

If you are expecting narratives that realistically portray a shiny, modern, 21stcentury China, the China that is an emerging economic powerhouse and home to Western-style skyscraper-dominated skylines, be prepared to be surprised.

What you get instead is something more abstract and suggestive, narratives that aspire to be truly literary fiction. The stories themselves are more like snapshots that capture various instants in the lives of their characters and are marked by a sense of suggestiveness and cypher-like incompleteness that invite the reader to participate in them and think beyond their endings.

Many of the characters are victims of sadistic persecution, such as Laifa, the central character of the opening story of the collection, “No Name of My Own,” who is mercilessly mocked by a gang of men in his village and whose dog is brutally killed by the same men. Brutality is also the hallmark of the title story, “Boy in the Twilight,” which tells of a boy-thief who is violently punished by a fruit seller with a tragic past.

Violence, brutality, and dehumanization all, in cleverly crafted ways, tell the larger story of the impact of the Cultural Revolution on modern China and also testify to what Yu Hua himself has called “the strength of the Chinese character.”

Some of the stories are about marriage and relationships in contemporary China and cast a humorous, sometimes crude, glance at infidelity, betrayal, and divorce among a gallery of men and women who lead hidden lives.

“Why There Was No Music,” possibly one of the more powerful stories in the collection, has a cruel surprise twist to it at the end, where a married man—ironically named “Horsie”—views a pornographic video featuring his wife, who has been cheating on him with his close friend. “Victory,” recently featured in The New Yorker, shows a wife subtly regaining power in her marriage after she accidentally finds out that her husband has been cheating on her. “Why Do I Have to Get Married?” takes a comic look at marriage (and divorce) and at the shallowness that marks this institution in post-Mao China.

Other stories, like “Appendix,” “Timid as a Mouse,” and “Their Son,” elliptically reflect on relationships between parents and their children and the absurd outcomes of these relationships. “Their Son,” in particular, is an urban tale about the gap between generations and the power of the younger generation over the older.

Yu Hua grabs his readers’ attention and keeps them guessing and involved till the very end.

Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China is a journey through a modern China populated by simple villagers, factory workers struggling with poverty, aspiring bureaucrats, traditional yet complex women, and marginal social elements who mock and taunt Yu Hua’s resilient protagonists. It is an unusual collection of tales that are varied in theme but consistently united by a vein of violence and cruelty narrated in a nonchalantly unconcerned style.

Coming on the heels of a year that awarded a short story writer (Alice Munro) a Nobel Prize, Boy in the Twilight offers an enduring testimony to the power of the short story and its ability to convey epic themes through the point of a pen.