Monday, May 25, 2020

Qian Zhongshu's "Fortress Besieged": Book Review

Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhong Shu — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists
I like academic satire, and as I was curious recently about Chinese novels in translation worth a go, I found this. Originally published in 1947, it tells of what are at least semi-autobiographical events just before WWII. The Japanese having invaded, flight to the interior brings Fang Hung-chien with his fake diploma and band of similarly suspect colleagues recruited for a dodgy new university inland.

Jeanne Kelly and Nathan K. Mao render in this 2004 edition an arch tale in the style of not so much Dickens as Mao claims in his afterword, than certainly early Huxley or Waugh. Weird analogies proliferate. In the first section, as Fang and certain women we will follow throughout the novel return from education in Europe, their creator muses of the onboard fare: "The fish was like the Marine Corps. It apparently had already been on land for several days; the meat was like submarine sailors, having been submerged in water for a long time." (20) In the second section, as the party takes up their occupations at the forlorn institution, the moon appears to feel similar depression. "One side was not yet full, like a face not yet swollen from a slap."(186) These observations are calibrated to the indirect narrative perspective of those peering out around them in this omniscient voice throughout.

As the plot inches on, the pace slows into a domestic tragicomedy of manners. I found this less engaging than the journey of part 2 or the university scenes of part 3. It may be deliberate to slow the events, but Fortress Besieged by its termination made me feel as if I was trapped in a prose castle.

Additionally, many endnotes are needed for a Western reader to get a dim sense of the erudite allusions and cultural references. This does not discredit the original work, but it will effect the reception of this work by those not in the know about a vast amount of Chinese literature and lore.

What Qian Zhongshu has in common with his Western educators is his disdain for his charges. The protagonist asserts: "The former policy of keeping the masses ignorant prevented the people from getting an education. The current policy of keeping the masses ignorant only allows the people to get a certain kind of education. The uneducated are fooled by others because they're illiterate. The educated are taken in by printed matter like your newspaper propaganda and lecture notes on training cadres because they are literate." (128) Later, Fang agrees that students look down on their masters: they show their elders no mercy, and crave only fairness. The best part of this novel are scenes upending academic status, and the clash of cultures as men and women purporting to be intellectual material for the new college deal with the lower classes on their long march from Shanghai.

However, very little feel of that city or the Japanese threat comes through. The events removed from the battle except for a brief burst of an air raid, the reader gets drawn into an hermetic tale. This novel, after the arrival, journey, and stay at the college, takes in its fourth part the marriage of Fang to Jou-chia, who we met very early on. Their tensions are foreshadowed. "Modern man has two popular myths: that homeliness in a girl is a virtue, so that pretty girls do not have half as much intelligence or honor as ugly girls, and second, that if a man lacks eloquence, he must be virtuous, making deaf-mutes the most sincere and honest people." (207) Finally, the matrimonial ceremonies consummated, we are left with the aftermath of a pairing. "Not detesting each other was already foundation enough for marriage." (293) The tone darkens as the novel illustrates the French proverb of the title: those inside a marriage want to get out, and those looking in cannot wait to enter. (Amazon US 11/9/17)

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