Bursting with metaphor and pacing itself through concise, rich, accurate language, this short story approaches the Sichuan earthquake survivors through their psychological trauma, uncovering their attitudes and ways of life following such a devastating tragedy. Nana’s uncle is one of the earthquake survivors, fleeing to Beijing’s art district to rediscover the joy of family with Nana and her boyfriend Qiao Yuan, leading a seemingly easy life of conversation, food, and sipping tea in the shade.
From that point on, the earthquake is never really brought up again, but we witness the aftershocks that take place inside Guan, immersing him in an indescribable sadness. And in this, Qiao Yuan’s two horse paintings bring the concept of “perspective” to the forefront. Before long, Guan’s heart becomes an emotional volcano ready to erupt at any moment, and we see this rupture take place when one day he can no longer stand the sadness embodied in a plaster head, concluding that it should be buried.
Throughout all this, the novel maintains a perfect narrative rhythm, choosing not to end these idiosyncrasies with more bouts of depression and setback, but rather with a calmness reminiscent of breeze through the rain: “Sure, he’s a little different from you and I, but he really made it. With that earthquake, life threw him a major detour, and instead of falling off the edge, he rounded the turn as he, an experienced driver, was supposed to.”
At the same time, Nana’s character is also worthy of reflection: “She decided to never again bring up that boy – the boy who she shared the same piece of candy with and who eventually went crazy. She hid that detour in her life for years and actually took a shortcut through it. She made it as well, and will meet other men and other tests.” Always a cold-eyed bystander, Nana would never take a “perspective” on things, preferring that they take their own course. But really, a Nana lives somewhere in each of us, because whether after joy or after sorrow, life always continues.
Zhou Lili (1984 – ), female, is a Han Chinese author from Sichuan Province. She graduated from Renmin University of China’s School of Journalism and Communication in 2006 and currently works for the China Writers Association’s Creative Alliance. Zhou started publishing her works in 2008, with her novella collection Sorrow and Joy making its way into the 2013 Star of 21st Century Literature series. As of today, she has earned awards that include the 4th Chinese Literature Female Judge Award, the 6th Maotai Cup’s Selected Fiction Newcomer Award, and the 2015 Yangtze River Series’ Annual Literature Prize.
The day of Nana’s test happened to be the hottest on record and she cast an apprehensive look at Qiao Yuan before setting out that morning, angered that he found her a worry-wart. He met her eyes with a smile, teasingly wishing her good luck. At the door, she fidgeted around to find a pair of flats and let out a sigh. “What’s the point?”
“I was always asking myself the same thing her age”, Old Guan said to Qiao Yuan after she’d gone. The two of them sat there helpless, knowing that they’d be spending a long day together.
“Why exactly do they make these?” Guan asked, looking at the unfinished sculptures in the workshop.
“They’re having an exhibition” Qiao said, rather flatly. Nobody had come by probably due to the heat, and a huge lock hung on the door.
“No, I mean, why do they make these? To help them remember?” Guan asked again, almost answering his own question.
Qiao Yuan looked on and said, “They really shouldn’t put all their scrap over here.” His eyes wandered across the plaster arms and legs that piled up into a major eyesore.
Old Guan nodded. “Yeah, maybe. We should do something?”
“Come on” Guan continued, standing up and crossing the street.
The two had been standing outside the workshop when Qiao Yuan saw Old Guan grab an iron rod out of nowhere and start digging into the ground. A nice bed of flowers used to be here beside the road, but they all died off after they rented and started to spruce up the workshop. Guan had some strong arms on him, so a big hole in the ground opened up in no time.
“What… are you doing?” Qiao Yuan asked.
“Burying that head.”
“Well, the rest of the sculpture’s fine. But this head’s terrible, so I’m gonna bury it.”
“But…why? We could just tell them not to put these things outside.” Qiao Yuan tilted his head to the side and figured maybe Guan was more of an artist.
Old Guan stopped for a moment, thought about it, and said: “Nah, let’s bury it and lay it to rest.”
From the pile of scrap plaster pieces, Guan pulled out a small head that looked neither male nor female and was missing its whole upper lip and nose. It still had ears, but they stuck out far like those of a rabbit’s.
He tossed it into the hole and said: “They won’t mind, right? I mean, they didn’t want it anyway.” Sure, he had a point. Nobody in the workshop would get worked up over a wasted plaster head. Anyway, Qiao Yuan was on good terms with the owner, so nothing would come of it.
But honestly, Qiao Yuan was a bit worried about Guan, finding his behavior a few notches away from normal. Of course, eccentric behavior is a norm in the art district, with people going up in arms to fight rising rents, animal cruelty, air pollution, or even the concept of property. But Guan should not be involved.
What Guan was “fighting” against or trying to bury, he wasn’t quite sure. Could he be trying to bury something other than the obvious? He suddenly recalled the boys in Nana’s polytechnic middle school… how they would throw their desks out the second-floor window, and how that was similar to Guan’s burying of this head. He thought long and hard, and wondered whether or not he should help the guy.
The heat waves emanating off the pavement could almost make ice cream of the plaster. But sooner or later, Guan realized that the hole wasn’t big enough but he did not have a tool to make it bigger with. Fed up, he started kicking down into the hole with no regard for his flip-flops – anything to make the hole bigger. But it was no use… the dirt got harder and harder the further down he went, reaching a layer of small stones.
Guan shook his head, dropping the rod with a sudden thud. He used the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead and neck. Then he got down on his hands and knees and started clawing at the dirt bit by bit.