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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Ma Bo値e痴 Second Life

Xiao Hong

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To purchase Ma Bo値e痴 Second Life

Title: Ma Bo値e痴 Second Life
Author: Xiao Hong
Genre: Novel
Written: 1941 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 248 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Ma Bo値e痴 Second Life - US
Ma Bo値e痴 Second Life - UK
Ma Bo値e痴 Second Life - Canada
  • Chinese title: 马伯乐
  • Translated, edited, and completed by Howard Goldblatt

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Our Assessment:

B : somewhat rough storytelling-style, but humorous and quite winning

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The back-cover copy of Open Letter's Ma Bo値e痴 Second Life avoids mention of Xiao Hong's dates and there's no obvious up-front mention that this novel was written and published shortly before her 1942 death, but readers who come to the book vaguely aware of this information might do a double-take when they read the opening pages, which begin:

     December 1984.
     Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government has just signed a joint declaration to return the British Colony of Hong Kong to China in 1997, when the ninety-nine-year lease runs out.
       From a contemporary perspective, an opening scene set in 1984 looking ahead to the long foreseeable return of Hong Kong to China at first might not strike one as particularly unusual.
       On second thought -- in a 1941 novel ? Wow, Xiao sure was looking and planning ahead .....
       On third thought -- wait, Xiao guessed Margaret Thatcher would be head of government at a time when Margaret Thatcher was still in her teens ?!?? That seems ... odd.
       The explanation isn't found at the end of this four-page opening section set in 1984, which involves the title-character's son, but a few small-print lines on the copyright page unravel the mystery:
The translator has completed the original unfinished work and has placed it in a contemporary context. A full explanation is given in the translator's afterward [sic].
       This, of course, takes translation -- or, perhaps more properly, something like: re-presentation into another language .... -- to another -- though not unheard of -- level.
       Of course, completing unfinished works by others isn't an entirely novel concept -- indeed, it's not all that uncommon: Mizumura Minae wrote a version completing Sōseki's Light and Dark, a number of authors have had a go at Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood, etc. Here, however, a previously unavailable (in English) text is presented in this altered-in-this-way form without any previous point of comparison; the Goldblatt-shaped text the sole and therefore definitive one (in English).
       Arguably, there's something to be said for a tightening of a somewhat fragmentary and incomplete text in translation -- Goldblatt notes some of his editing decisions in his afterword, such the chapter-divisions -- but, of course, actually adding to the story, the translator (and editor) now also truly a co-author, is a different matter. Goldblatt does note that, while he: "toyed with the idea of trying to replicate Xiao Hong's writing style" he: "found it more reasonable to allow for a second 'author' to complete the unfinished work" -- so at least there's something of a differentiation between original and addenda. Certainly, also, if anyone could/should do this, then Goldblatt would be your man: he wrote the book on Xiao, publishing his study of the author in the Twayne World Authors Series in 1976 (! so long ago that her name is still written 'Hsiao Hung' ...), published his translation of her Market Street in 1986, and has published translations of several more volumes of her work since, and mentions in his notes that he started translating this work in the early 1980s -- i.e. he's been engaging with it for well over three decades. And, arguably, the finished work is a (far) more accessible and coherent whole, and brings the novel to a proper conclusion.
       But .....
       [As an ultra-originalist re. texts -- someone whose ideal is don't change a word (despite how ridiculous that is with regards to translation, where, of course, literally almost every word has to be changed, from one language into another ...) this sort of interference with the text ... does not sit well -- give me a fragmented mess, preferably heavily annotated, every time -- but I recognize that many people prefer a smoothed-out and nicely rounded off read. And, review-wise, I'll take whatever I'm given, since this is what potential readers will/can get their hands on. And some version of 马伯乐 in English is, presumably, better than no English version at all .....]
       Of course, aside from the choice to ... supplement the text, there's the issue of what is added. Goldblatt not only continues Xiao's original story, but then also adds an entirely new layer with his framing device -- starting and then also ending the story in the mid-1980s, with the title-character's son. In a way it's an amusing idea, nesting the original, as such (though that too is 'the original as completed by Goldblatt'), within a framing story that features one of the characters (and fills in some of what happened to the various family members after the time covered in the original novel). Historically, it's a bit problematic -- suggesting the (nested-)novel was rediscovered in the 1980s, though in fact it seems never to have disappeared from sight, and was reprinted in China and Hong Kong several times between its original publication and 1984 -- which compounds the question(mark) of what is 'authentic' here .....
       Xiao's novel -- the parts she wrote -- is an enjoyable if somewhat rough and tumble story centered around Ma Bo値e, born into a fairly well-to-do family in Qingdao, in northern China. His father, who used to be: "the quintessential Chinese Mandarin" embraced Westernization and converted to Christianity, with the credo that: "Western things are better than Chinese things". (So also he had named his son: "Bao-lu, the Chinese equivalent of Paul", but Bo値e didn't like the foreign name so he changed it to 'Bo値e' -- though his parents and wife continue to call him 'Paul'.)
       On the one hand, Ma Bo値e disapproved of his family's opulent lifestyle, and didn't feel comfortable in it; on the other, he showed minimal ambition, and couldn't make much of himself either as a student or doing any kind of work. Dependent on his parents' and his wife's money, he nevertheless tried to break out and become independent, after a fashion -- though more or less always slinking back. The story has him trying his luck in Shanghai several times, but never with much success. Of course, 'trying' might be an exaggeration: for all his grand plans -- one of which involves setting himself up as a publisher -- her never really gets around to establishing himself or any business; as a would-be publisher, for example, he doesn't manage to publish a single book .....
       The story is largely set in the late 1930s, as Japan increasingly threatens China. Ma Bo値e is convinced that Qingdao will be attacked, and he steels himself for the refugee-life; he's slightly premature in his concerns -- and excessive in his embrace of the refugee life, suffering rather more hardship than perhaps necessary. In Shanghai, too, he is disappointed that no one seems to be taking the impending crisis seriously: "Everyone was acting too normal for Bo値e's taste". Xiao has good fun with the willful character, and the depths he's willing to sink to as he waits for catastrophe that takes its time coming.
       Eventually things -- and he and his family -- do go south, and the novel follows the family as they escape from city to city. With his wife -- valued most because she has the cash that allows for a reasonably comfortable life -- and three young kids (all with Western names, including the girl who is named Jacob), Ma Bo値e and his family endure a variety of hardships and mishaps, but somehow they manage. The Japanese threat is real -- one train voyage involves a precarious bridge-crossing on foot, a constant target for the Japanese bombers -- and the masses of refugees on the move make travel difficult. While on his own -- especially early on in Shanghai -- Ma Bo値e let himself sink ino the most abject living conditions (enjoyably reveled in by Xiao), but when his family joins him they do manage to live relatively comfortably, much of the time -- though conditions are pretty tough and unpleasant. They are fairly fatalistic, going with the flow and circumstances, and they don't complain too much -- beyond the usual domestic dis-harmony that remains more or less constant, whatever the circumstances. Ma Bo値e often curses the 'Bloody Chinese' -- even when they're not Chinese -- but he puts up with a surprising lot.
       The adventures are small scale and not too eventful -- even when Ma Bo値e courts another woman it doesn't really go anywhere -- and even Ma Bo値e's grander ambitions, like learning Esperanto or trying his hand at a variety of business occupations, invariably peter out rather tepidly. But that's part of the success of the novel, that despite the difficult and dangerous times the characters are living through, the small-scale everyday dominates, with worries about the children and their (mis)behavior or wandering off almost always closer and thus also larger than the looming Japanese threat (constant though that too is).
       Goldblatt adds a bit more action as Ma Bo値e and his family make it to Chongqing and then Hong Kong; Goldblatt tries to continue the story very much in the same vein, and while he does get a lot of the hapless action down quite well these sections read as more polished -- he can't quite continue Xiao's more rough and tumble narrative style. There's also perhaps too much packed in -- and even more then in the closing section, jumping ahead to 1985, Ma Bo値e's son David now having read the account of his father and family and then filling in what happened to them in the four decades since.
       It is all quite good fun -- though the extra padding and especially the framing device seem unnecessary or even, in the case of the framing device, distracting. Chinese readers seem to have been just fine with the incomplete story, and it isn't obvious why English-speaking readers wouldn't have been as well .....
       Ma Bo値e痴 Second Life is certainly worthwhile for its unusual take on life in China under increasing Japanese threat -- not exactly carefree, and certainly not sugar-coating the hardships, but facing them with an entertainingly idiosyncratic fatalism. Much of the writing can feel under-developed -- hasty, often (less so when Goldblatt takes the lead), and sketchy -- but it remains fully engaging.
       An odd work, featuring a true oddball, it might have been better left in its rawer and unfinished state. Goldblatt's historic additions, situating the characters then -- and later -- are ... thoughtful, carrying on in Xiao's spirit and clearly chosen with some care as to historic and novelistic accuracy, and make for an arguably more rounded-off, complete work -- but I'm not convinced they were necessary (or, for that matter, wise).

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 July 2018

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Ma Bo値e痴 Second Life: Reviews: Xiao Hong: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Xiao Hong (萧红) lived 1911 to 1942.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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