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True Arab Love

by Issa J. Boullata

Shenzheners

by Cai Gao (ill.); Xue Yiwei‚ Darryl Sterk (trans.)

The first work of fiction by Chinese writer Xue Yiwei to appear in English, Shenzheners is dedicated to “the Irishman who inspires me.” Given that the book comprises a suite of stories focusing on denizens of the titular metropolis, it is reasonable to presume that the Irishman in question is Joyce. Indeed, in its original Mandarin, the book was referred to in some circles as a Chinese answer to Dubliners.

SeptemberReviews_TrueArabLove_CoverBut the spirit of another Irishman hovers over the entire collection. In its austere prose, existential rumination, and pervasive themes of loneliness and isolation, Xue’s book most vividly resembles Beckett. And it is Beckett, not Joyce, who is alluded to explicitly in “The Dramatist”: “I’m waiting for Godot,” the eponymous playwright responds when questioned in a community garden by the story’s first-person narrator. A line from one of the dramatist’s own plays – “Silence is revolt against absurdity” – has a distinctly Beckettian air, as does the moment at the close of the garden scene, which recalls the end of Waiting for Godot: “The dramatist turned to go without taking his leave of me.”

Also hearkening back to the Beckett of Play and Not I, none of the central characters in the stories is given a proper name; they are referred to in the story titles by generic designations: “The Peddler,” “The Prodigy,” “The Taxi Driver.” This lends the characters an anonymizing quality that also suggests universality, an appropriate poise for a collection set in a city with a population that has exploded since it was declared a Special Economic Zone in 1980. As a Chinese passenger on the Toronto–Montreal train comments about Shenzhen, “Almost everyone in that city is an immigrant, just like here in Canada.”

The man, who describes himself as a “failed artist,” falls into a conversation with another passenger on the train, a woman who lives in a rural town outside Trois-Rivières; the two bond over a shared affection for the work of Paul Auster. Both are in possession of a copy of Auster’s New York Trilogy – hers in the original English, his in Chinese translation. The subject of translation is introduced in the opening story – the only one not set in China – and will persist, either literally or metaphorically, across the eight pieces that follow.

SeptemberReviews_Shenzheners_CoverThose stories, which take up subjects of love and loss and belonging, are steeped in an eastern sensibility and peppered with western cultural references – beside Beckett and Auster, Xue (who currently resides in Montreal) references Shakespeare, Bach, Proust, and Kundera. It’s an undeniably odd mélange, but it works in creating quiet portraits of melancholy and failure, all with one eye on the existential unease that undergirds the postmodern condition.

“What’s it like to feel rootless in your native land?” asks the woman on the train of the failed artist in Xue’s opening story. It’s a question that might reasonably apply to any number of the characters in Issa J. Boullata’s collection, a slim volume that focuses on Arabs and Arab expats in Jordan, Jerusalem, Lebanon, the U.S., and Canada. “Mine is a true Arab love that clings and does not let go,” writes Jim in an extended love letter to the object of his infatuation. The notion of “true Arab love” comprises the nature of the letter writer’s romantic feelings as well as a kind of nationalistic patriotism; the ironic echo of the Canadian national anthem in the collection’s title is surely not accidental.

Boullata examines themes of displacement and exile in eight brief entries that cumulatively clock in at fewer than 100 pages. This brevity, however, belies the sweep of the individual works in terms of chronology and subject matter. Unlike Xue’s stories, which are models of concision and focus, Boullata’s unfurl over extended periods of time and geography. In one case, a single, 10-page story encompasses two entire generations of an Egyptian expatriate family.

This approach is not always successful: Boullata frequently attempts to cram too much into his stories, which are not capacious enough to accommodate everything he wants them to hold. The short-story form, particularly in the more concatenated iterations Boullata seems to prefer, is more comfortable with economy than expansiveness. The more streamlined stories – “Without a Court Trial,” “Bar-room Confessions,” “Oh, Saleema” – are generally more effective, precisely because of their greater specificity of focus.

Boullata makes strong points about the disconnect felt by immigrants forced to accustom themselves to an unfamiliar way of life or ideology: the husband in “Bar-room Confessions,” who must come to grips with his wife’s newly acquired sense of independence (including her initiative to secure an abortion without consulting him), provides a clear window on the immigrant experience, in both its advantages and perils.