Review

The Writer Who Came in from the Cold6 min read

Angela Qian reviews Na Duo’s All the Way to Death

 

It’s a fascinating premise: a man wakes up on the bank of the Yulong River without any memory of the last five years of his life, then launches a successful career as a suspense writer. In the years since, he hasn’t recovered any of his memories. That is, until now.

Just before he’s about to embark on a PR trip along the Silk Road, he finds a hidden folder on his computer filled with short stories. He doesn’t recognize any of them – but they’re all written in his signature style, and the files are dated from within the five years of his missing memories. The stories all take place in northwestern locales (Jiayuguan, Dunhuang, Kashgar) which, incidentally, are the stops on his Silk Road tour. At each stop on the trip, the writer finds that the short stories correlate to a grisly unsolved murder at that area, and from the stories, he knows details which no one else knows.

Is the writer a murderer? Did he, during those five years he can’t remember, commit these bloody crimes? Or did someone plant the stories on him, trying to frame him as a killer?

Alas, whatever enjoyment I would have derived from the intricacies and turns of what promised to be a novel and refreshing thriller was diluted by the awkwardness of the translation, credited to Jiang Yajun, a professor of linguistics at Xi’an International Studies University. In English, Na Duo’s novel All the Way to Death is a slim 198 pages, but each page was dense with awkward phrasings and poor grammar. Despite Professor Jiang’s credentials, the book was simply not translated into fluid English.

Turning to a random page in the novel, for instance, I find this line of dialogue:

To be logical, there is always the possibility as long as I fail to remember what happened to me, even though it is a faint possibility, which needs imaginary details to support.

Or, on another page:

I could tell at a glance what was original and what was fictional. Or could I really do it? I suddenly asked myself involuntarily.

The sentence-to-sentence difficulty of comprehension pollutes the entire air of the novel. Sentences like these ruin the novel, and left me unsure if Na Duo intended the narrator himself to be unreliable. In the prelude to the story, for instance, the protagonist writes, “This is my last novel… I have some pictures from the murder, which will help me write a long enough book. I’m exhausted, fatigued, and dying.” Are we to read the novel as a confession, then, or is the meta-fictive prelude simply included as a device to enhance narrative tension? Or is the text unnecessarily ambiguous?

Translation is an undervalued art. Often, a good translator is almost invisible, so skillful are they at rendering the original language into our own vernacular that we hardly think of them as we read. Like good health, good writing and good translation is something that readers take for granted until they don’t have it. And just as bad writing can (sometimes) be saved by a good translation, when the translation is poor, the original writing suffers for it.

“A good translator is invisible, so skillful that we hardly think of them as we read”

Not all of the problems with the novel, of course, can be put on the shoulders of the translator. Egregious copy-editing and typographical errors within the text indicate that the book was hastily edited with little to no proofreading. Even with editorial nitpicking aside, there are even deeper problems that presumably carry over from the original.

One major relationship in the novel is between the writer and femme fatale Zhong Yi, a producer with a degree in psychology and who happens to be a big fan of his books. Na Duo infuses their relationship with an undercurrent of attraction, sex, and suspicion – the protagonist begins to schedule evening meetings with her, purportedly for psychological counseling but often leading into something more, complicating their psychologist-client relationship. But when the narrator begins to suspect Zhong Yi is the one who planted the stories, and for coordinating the damning route of his supposed PR trip, the narrative becomes convoluted and incomprehensible. The ending of the novel was not illuminating and ultimately dissatisfying, mainly because it was difficult to grasp the central conflicts leading up to the climax.

Na Duo (那多) is the pen name of Zhao Yan (赵延), born in 1977. A prolific author with over 20 books to his name, he originally graduated from a customs university, worked as a civil servant, then – apparently out of a need to sleep in – turned to freelance journalism before beginning to write fiction. (The fact that his father, Zhao Changtian 赵长天, is a novelist, and formerly served as the chairman of the Shanghai Writer’s Association, may have influenced his choice in career.) Na Duo’s most popular books are his earlier works of suspense and fantasy, with titles such as Ghost Flag, Return to the Ancestors, and The Immortal Dead.

This translation is part of the ‘Stories by Contemporary Writers from Shanghai’ series, which, as the title suggests, aims to spotlight the varied literary scene of Shanghainese writers today. It appears to be sponsored by the Shanghai Writers Association, and its list includes translations of such influential members such as Wang Anyi, Zhang Yiwei, Sun Ganlu and others. (Notably, the foreword to the series, by Shanghai Normal University professor of literature Wang Jiren 王纪人, is in very polished English).

The decision to translate All the Way to Death, one of the more poorly rated books of Na Duo’s oeuvre, is curious. One may speculate that the editors thought the remote northwestern deserts and the sparsely populated Uyghur towns along the former Silk Road would be exotic and appealing to Western readers. Indeed, the shifting sand dunes, remote inns, Buddhist caves and jade mines make for a landscape of thrilling narrative potential. In the post-Three-Body era of Chinese translation, the time is ripe for the introduction of more varied Chinese literature to the West beyond censored or politicized authors such as Mo Yan or Yan Lianke. It is a pity that the uneven translation and confusing plot of this addition is unlikely to win any readers over to the canon of contemporary Chinese literature, or to inspire readers’ trust in the series. ∎

 

Na Duo, All the Way to Death (Shanghai Press, April 2017), trans. Jiang Yajun.

Angela Qian

Angela Qian is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Common, Catapult, The Millions, The Toast and other publications.