Kevin McGeary reviews The Invisible Valley by Su Wei, translated by Austin Woerner
In a 1983 lecture at the National Word Festival in Canberra, fantasy author Alan Garner explained the importance of childhood in making someone a writer1. He recalled his own early years in England during World War II, living life on a mythic plane of absolute good against absolute evil, with survival feeling like a daily struggle. Garner claimed that this seeped into the psyches of his generation and subsequently, its writers’ work, which was profound where the literature of later generations, he argued, was trivial and effete by comparison.
At the Macao Literary Festival in 2018, translator Austin Woerner – whom I first met at a literary translation boot camp in Huangshan in 2014 – explained that his early ambition was to be a novelist, but his comfortable, suburban, American upbringing was not great fodder. Fortunately, for lovers of genre-bending, constantly surprising, and occasionally-hilarious fiction, when studying Chinese at Yale, he met Professor Su Wei.
Su Wei’s offbeat novel The Invisible Valley, translated by Woerner, follows Lu Beiping who, like Su Wei was, is “sent down” from his native Guangzhou City to be re-educated in the countryside of Hainan Island during The Cultural Revolution. More than just a roman à clef, The Invisible Valley is also a coming-of-age tale, a fish-out-of-water story, and contains elements of romance and magic realism.
Since conflict is to story what sound is to music, the Cultural Revolution was always likely to provide the basis for good literature. The literary movement that initially sprung about in reaction to the political upheavals of the 1960s has been dubbed “scar literature.” In the late 1970s, authors such as Lu Xinhua and Liu Xinwu achieved commercial success with fiction that tackled the period. Since then, more mature books have appeared about the same period, including Ma Bo’s memoir Blood Red Sunset, Mo Yan’s novel The Frog, and Waiting by Ha Jin.
Though now based at Yale, Su Wei grew up in a “black family”, the lowest of the low politically, before being sent down to the countryside. He later played a key role as a leading intellectual in the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989, was blacklisted by the Chinese government soon after the bloody June 4 crackdown, and eventually fled his home country. An acclaimed essayist and novelist, he has published three novels and several books of short stories and personal essays in Chinese.
“Conflict is to story what sound is to music, and the Cultural Revolution provides the basis for good literature”
In Invisible Valley, protagonist Lu Beiping’s life is governed by taboos, rules, conventions and fears. He is subjected to the Chinese tradition of a “ghost marriage” when the foreman pairs him off with his deceased daughter. After the foreman gives him a plum job in isolation tending cattle on the fictional Mudkettle Mountain, Lu Beiping encounters a clan of polyamorous “driftfolk,” whose way of life helps him escape the prevailing Maoist ideology of the time.
Before his ghost marriage, Lu Beiping has a non-sexual relationship with a female squadmate called Fong. Due to the taboos of the period, his moments of sexual gratification are limited to admiring her “shapely rump” and “manure-spattered calves”. With Jade, the twenty-something matriarch of the driftfolk, though, Lu Beiping has a sex scene that goes on for some four pages. In less capable hands, this passage of writing would be a shoo-in for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, but it turns out well.
Initially, he dismisses much of the lore of the driftfolk and their leader Kingfisher as “superstitious mumbo-jumbo.” However, he comes to appreciate their way of life and compares it favourably to the narrow ideology he has had drummed into him: “Where Kingfisher’s primitive superstitions seemed to grow out of a grasp of man’s place in the world, Lu Beiping could tell that the foreman’s high-toned rhetoric hid an ugly twist of distorted reasoning.”
In his squad of sent-down youth, under the watchful eye of the foreman, “sex could be a powerful tool, for sealing lips.” By contrast, the drifftfolk believe that “no kind of affection between living beings ought to be a sin.”
The ideological battle is compelling, but what really recommends this book is the prose and pieces of wisdom the characters sometimes offer. When discussing the paranoia of the times, Lu Beiping rants, “Everybody takes it for granted that other people care enough about what they do to want to dig up dirt on them.” And on the fatalism he develops when discovering the powerlessness of man when set against the planet, Lu Beiping reflects, “I believe, I really do, that when a human life is pushed to its limits, there is a critical threshold where light and shadow, the human world and the spirit world, meet, and we can converse with the divine.”
In an upside-down world, where radical and mainstream mean the same thing, Lu Beiping is distinguished by his ordinariness. His characteristics are typical of late male adolescence, including “the ravenous but homework-hating bookworm, the non-stamp collecting oddball obsessed with basketball stars, the meticulous bather whose room was never neat.”
The story is punctuated by a framing device in which Lu Beiping is said to be recounting this story to a novelist who later wrote it down. This feels unnecessary, but it appears too infrequently to cause any real damage. The translation is fluid and very readable: Woerner may not have had a miserable childhood, but his work displays what Doris Lessing described as the necessary self-awareness to straddle the boundary between what is meant and what is said.
The Invisible Valley is the product of a serendipitous encounter. It is a respectful portrait of real history, whose prose and storytelling give it a fantastical flourish. Su Wei’s challenging early life and Woerner’s pains-taking translation have resulted in a book that crosses that critical threshold where life is pushed to its limits. ∎