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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Book of Sins

Chen Xiwo

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To purchase The Book of Sins

Title: The Book of Sins
Author: Chen Xiwo
Genre: Stories
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 204 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Book of Sins - US
The Book of Sins - UK
The Book of Sins - Canada
The Book of Sins - India
  • Chinese title: 冒犯书
  • Translated by Nicky Harman

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Our Assessment:

B : well told, but dark and often ugly stories

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       There are sins aplenty in the seven stories that make up The Book of Sins, but the English title is misleading: the Chinese title, 冒犯书, is much closer to the mark: this is -- or at least tries, very hard, to be -- an 'offensive book'. A short introduction warns as much, of what lies ahead; it -- and each save the final story -- closes with the questioning reminder:

Are you sure about this ?
You can shut the book now.
Do you choose to read on ?
       The novel has an epigraph taken from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch:
You have corrupted my imagination and inflamed my blood. I am beginning to enjoy all this.
       And there's a strong streak of masochism to the collection, characters wallowing in pain and misery. For may of them it is not straightforward enjoyment that leads them to this, but they are driven to it by urges and needs they can not fight or resist -- most obviously and shockingly the crippled young man in 'I Love My Mum', whose sexual longings lead to catastrophe.
       Much of the pain and suffering here is physical, beginning with the opening story, 'Pain', its narrator losing herself in her pain: "I was just in pain. Pain. Pure pain !" But in some cases the situation is more complex, as in 'Our Bones', in which a man describes his parents' quest: having lived through so much hardship, they find themselves dissatisfied with a modern world in which they can, for example, eat any sort of meal they like. They long for the simple gourd bone soup that had been such a hard-to-come-by treat in earlier, much harder times, but find it almost impossible to get nowadays. They try to buy gourd bones from various butchers to make their own, but refuse to take the offered bones when the butchers refuse payment for the worthless stuff: it only has value to them when there is at least some nominal cost associated with it, and not having to pay for the ingredients that were once so precious to them ruins their attempt to recapture those sensations of yore.
       The old couple articulate a variation of what many of the characters feel:
     When I look back, the more hardship we suffered, the more fun it was.
       In other cases there is no such retrospective recognition; rather, the characters learn to enjoy pain for the first time. Like the voyeur in 'Kidney Tonic', they find themselves drawn into something dark, losing all interest and will to try to escape it, a contrast to their limited, often boring day-to-day-lives; almost all are also drawn all-in, like leaping from a ledge. But Chen doesn't go for the entirely predictable, either, and so when one character is literally drawn to a high cliff and the thought of leaping into the abyss, in 'Going to Heaven', the story doesn't play out in the most obvious manner.
       These are well-told tales, but they are dark and often very ugly. It's not just the guts and gore and ejaculate on display (though, yeah, semen does not make for a pretty picture here -- so much for the seed of life), but what the people themselves are reduced to. In part a reaction to the modern Chinese ennui -- the one-child policy and the breakneck-speed modernization (and with it all the changes to the fabric of society) are among the factors that play significant roles in several of the pieces --, The Book of Sins is also a more general (dark) look at contemporary man. While the masochistic turns can seem exaggerated, much here strikes close to home far beyond China, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 October 2014

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The Book of Sins: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Chen Xiwo (陈希我) was born in 1963.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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