PATRIOTS AND TRAITORS
Tattoo
REVIEW

"Su Tong (b. 1963) and fellow members of China’s youthful 1980s avant-garde won a global readership after the 1989 Beijing Massacre thanks to new novels rich in historical themes and storylines strong enough to inspire great films by China’s famed “Fifth Generation” of cinematographers. Su Tong’s breakout work was Wives and Concubines (1990), filmed by Zhang Yimou as Raise the Red Lantern (1991). In 2009, Su Tong won China its second Man Asian Literary Prize with his The Boat to Redemption.

"Tattoo is the second collection of Su Tong’s shorter fiction rendered by Josh Stenberg, a talented writer, translator, and Chinese opera expert who frequents Su Tong’s old haunts along the Shanghai-Suzhou-Nanjing axis. This book is an early offering from MerwinAsia, a two-year-old independent enterprise of Douglas Merwin already known for its translations of Chinese and Korean fiction, like M. E. Sharpe’s East Gate Books, an imprint Merwin founded and formerly edited.

"The three novellas collected here, written in the 1990s, are well selected and expertly translated. Su Tong’s 1992 novels Rice and My Life as Emperor already evidence the turn toward realism and portentous history often noted in post-Massacre works by Yu Hua (author of To Live), but Su Tong’s longer novels seem possessed by the bizarre, the macabre, the obsessive, the inbred and incestuous—in David Der-wei Wang’s words, “family melodrama with a gothic touch.” The novellas here are sparer and not so showy, though they could still be called urban Chinese period pieces. A mystery of this collection, “The Gardener’s Art,” is set in 1930s Shanghai. The title story, which closes the volume, dramatizes primitive violence and the tattoos that served as “colors” for urban gangs of the 1970s just before Mao’s death. As always, Su Tong depicts bullying, vengeance, and cruelty, but here he renders these acts deftly and without sensationalism. The effect is not melodrama, but visions of pervasive ugliness, squalor, and malodor. The mystery piece, about a missing husband, is really a vehicle for exploring verbal harassment, snobbery, and paternal fecklessness in the eternal Chinese family and the neighborhoods hiding it. That novella continues the theme of the opening work, “A Divorce Handbook,” which details the rage of a woman scorned, her ability to enlist her birth family and China’s mean streets to achieve violent retribution, and the emptiness of her husband’s dreams for a better life. The raw passions of Chinese divorce emerge more quickly and adroitly than in Ha Jin’s Waiting. The tattoos in Su Tong’s novella of that name evoke his fascination with fetishes and obsessions, but now with the narrative economy of a master storyteller who has a fine grasp of human psychology."

Jeffrey C. Kinkley
in World Literature Today