Review comments on Five Flavour Grove, published as Five Spice Street
With more than two decades of consistently brilliant literary output behind her, Can Xue has proven that her writing is not a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, as some skeptical critics may have doubted in the 1980s, but the expression of a profoundly creative literary talent. Were it not for the protocols of translation and culturalism that filter the reception and recognition of Chinese literature, it would be simply impossible to imagine that work by an author of this caliber—we consider her to be, frankly, without peer—could remain relatively unknown to global readers of world literature in English. Yet precisely because Can Xue’s work is so utterly innovative, it is relatively difficult for her work to acquire recognition within the constricting boundaries and expectations placed upon literature emanating from China. Ultimately, the interest her work deserves can probably only come about by acquiring recognition from an audience cultivated upon the premise of innovation. Undoubtedly, the form this readership takes today is still that of an educated Western audience. (Needless to say, to observe this state of affairs is by no means to endorse it). Hence, we feel it is no exaggeration to say that Can Xue’s work desperately requires immediate translation into English in order that such creative work be liberated, as soon as possible, from those protocols—understandable, but frankly anachronistic—to which we have alluded above.
The current work under consideration for translation is part of the author’s early corpus and one of the works upon which she built her reputation. Although her more recent work surpasses the value—both technically and emotionally—of this early work, it is still the standard by which her writing is critically evaluated, and there is no doubt that its steamy-yet-prudent, cynical-yet-engaged narrative voice—exposing as much as it holds back in reserve—will appeal to a wide audience and make it easily adapted to both the paperback form and the needs of comparative literature courses at advanced and intermediate levels. While those specialists who expect and even demand a particularly “ethnic” flavor to works by Chinese authors may inevitably be disappointed by the lack of red lanterns and steamed buns, it is a tribute to the brilliance of the author that her work speaks to a larger audience without losing, not for even a moment, the oppressive intensity of social experience that is definitely familiar to Chinese. Part Kafka, part Marquez, Can Xue’s writing is far too in touch with the doubts our postmodern age has cast upon narrative voice, representation, and community to indulge in the spectacle of self-ethnicization that passes for literature about the Orient. What results instead is truly brilliant and unique: a Chinese author with the courage to face not just the political injustice of this or that particular regime, but one who is sensitive to the generic forms of power in everyday life—the ways in which quotidian fascism exists hand-in-hand with the fantasy of community and the desire for immunity from all manner of pathology. Who could doubt that readers around the world today, not just in China, would find their interest riveted to the page by Can Xue’s unrelenting exposition of that singular, generic postmodern infection called “community”?
We have carefully reviewed the draft translation provided with the Chinese text, and there can be no doubt as to the skill of the translators. Based upon this sample, we feel that Yale University Press can be fully confident that the translators will provide a finished product of the highest professional quality and literary readability possible in the translated text of a great author.
We hope the above remarks will assist Yale University Press in reaching a positive decision to undertake translation, publication, and marketing of this work, and we look forward with great enthusiasm to its release.
© 2006 Jon Solomon