The Manchester Review

Wang Anyi, reviewed by Emma Snowden

Saturday, 20th October 2012, International Anthony Burgess Foundation

First of all I would like to offer a little advice to any non-Chinese speaking ticket holders.  Get to the venue early. On the seat you will find a handout. This handout is a translation of what Wang Anyi will read in Chinese. Read it through a couple of times and orientate yourself as this performance is at times a little disorientating. In the old Mill, in an industrial, minimal room a stage is occupied by three solemn looking women. One of which is Wang Anyi. The performance is introduced by an enthusiastic young woman who says she is part of a group of people that wanted to ‘foster an audience’ to appreciate contemporary Chinese culture in Britain. Introductions to Wang Anyi are made firstly in Chinese, then English. Wang Anyi then rises and begins her reading. The English speaking audience is not told where to begin reading on the handout or where to finish and it is not made clear on the sheet itself. A small detail perhaps, but this is why it is worth getting there early and reading it through so you can sit back and listen to Anyi Speak or read along if you choose. This aside, even for someone who cannot speak a word of Chinese (myself included in that bracket) the poetry and rhythm is clear. It is exquisite to listen to and at the risk of sounding pretentious brings a new meaning to the translation on the handout. The extract is from Wang Anyi’s novel ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’ and the extract is a beautiful, contemplative description of gossip that a whole two sides of A4 discusses. Coming from Shanghai, Wang Anyi offers an intricately detailed description of life in a longtang: which are the working class suburbs of shanghai, made up of networks of crowded alleys. The intricacy of the description is underpinned by an obvious passion for what is being described and the result is stunning.

In the question and answer session that follows, in which the questions were asked in English, translated, and answered in Chinese and translated back to the audience, it was extremely interesting to hear how Wang Anyi’s life has affected her writing. Anyi’s mother was a writer and her father a dramatist. However despite this promising parentage, Anyi grew up during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70’s and this meant her school career ended at the age of fifteen. It also meant she saw many social changes; changes which have fascinated her and become the focus of her writing. Indeed ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’ is set over a time period of 40 years and explores the individual in a changing world. It is interesting to hear about a very different life, which, produced an author who created a piece of writing that someone (in this case myself) from a very different walk of life can understand and relate to. Anyi says she feels it is her job as a writer to describe the world on a micro level, to describe the things on a personal level. The interpreter often uses the words ‘teeny-weeny’ in her translations of Anyi’s explanation of what it is she writes about and wants to portray. It is possibly Anyi’s obsession with the ‘teeny weeny’ aspects of life and with the portrayal of the intimate and personal that creates this effect. Human experience, human interaction is explored against the backdrop of history and described so poignantly that I feel many readers can understand and be moved by it.

Emma Snowden is a student at The University of Manchester.


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