Imagine. Islands of words, small self-contained worlds of ideas, stories, exploration. Points of reference in a sea that is increasingly uneasy, uncertain to navigate. This is the vision of isolarii, a project designed to revive the notion of “island books”—collections of literature and art united on a singular idea and bound into a single volume—that first appeared during the Renaissance, but was lost as other literary forms began to take precedence. Now, under a bimonthly subscription model, the tradition has been reborn in miniature.
Purple Perilla by Chinese experimental writer Can Xue is the third offering in this series. Beautifully presented, complete with a translucent dust jacket, this tiny book is about the size of a deck of cards and contains, in just under 150 pages, three delightful short stories: “An Affair,” “Mountain Ants,” and “Purple Perilla.” Xue offers these tales, which move from an urban to a wild setting, as a lyrical reaction to our contemporary condition. Her trademark measure of unreality permeates each piece.
For those unfamiliar with her work, Can Xue is a very idiosyncratic writer. She allows her fiction to spill forth in what will be its finished state—she writes, one hour a day, without rereading or edits. As a result, her stories and novels have a wandering quality, with a real, yet unreal atmosphere. Much like a dream. The best way to approach such work is to read as Xue writes, one word at a time. This is against an attentive reader’s natural instincts, but looking for patterns and clues will not help. However, this is not to say there is no form, no direction, no meaning—only that one is forced to be patient, to listen and see where the story takes you, not worrying if it seems to tumble along freely at times. Reader and author are essentially on a journey together. As Can Xue says:
Reading my fiction requires a certain creativity. This particular way of reading has to be more than just gazing at the accepted meanings of the text on a literal level, because you are reading messages sent out by the soul, and your reading is awakening your soul into communication with the author’s.
“An Affair” tells the story of Fay, a thirty-six year old teacher, living in a city, who receives a most unusual love letter from a man who claims he has seen her on the bus. He neither reveals his name nor provides a return address, admitting he does not expect she would want to write back. This odd, enigmatic correspondence haunts Fay, leading her to wonder what kind of hold this mysterious man has on her imagination. Eventually she sets out to find him, or find out more about him, by travelling to the far end of the city where he told her he works at a cigarette factory. What she discovers on her strange, convoluted mission seems to tell her more about herself than any mysterious suitor.
The second tale, “Mountain Ants,” is set in a small city surrounded by mountains. Lin Mai lives with his parents in a mansion which is oddly isolated despite being surrounded by buildings. Visitors are rare. The boy spends much of his free time interacting with a large nest of ants in his yard. One day an old man appears at his gate. He tells Lin Mai that he lives in the mountains and has followed the ants to his home. This man, who is called Grandpa Wu, shares some knowledge about the ants and promises that one day he will take Lin Mai up a mountain. As this magical story unfolds, Lin Mai learns some curious information about his parents, the beggar known as Grandpa Wu, and the importance of tending to his own and several other mountain ant colonies in the city.
The final story “Purple Perilla,” the most dreamlike and magical of the three, ultimately carries the narrator into the wilderness, where a friend and his grandma have gone to live among the wolves. To young Chickadee this friend, a boy he has long admired, has uncanny qualities:
Unwittingly, I followed Nigu. He was so profound that he wasn’t like a child, but like … what was he like?
“I’m my grandfather’s grandfather.” Nigu turned around and spoke to me. I was stunned—he actually knew what I was thinking!
“I’m really like my grandfather’s grandfather. I think I am. Chickadee, don’t be afraid of me; I won’t hurt anyone…”
Read as a cycle, these short stories walk headfirst into the unknown. Here, questions are transformative in themselves—it’s less a matter of securing answers than of finding comfort in mystery. Bound together in this portable format, they offer a direct engagement with the magic and vision of one of China’s most inventive writers.
Each volume in the isolarii series is accompanied by several forewords. Presently, Scholastique Mukasonga’s prose riffing in response to a sentence or two from each of Can Xue’s stories is available online. It can be found here. Reading this small volume is a uniquely pleasurable experience. And, it’s worth noting that although the book is small in size, the font is not nor do the stories feel compressed or compromised in any way. It has been a while since I last wandered in Can Xue’s world and my first encounter with her short fiction, but I am now keen to return, before long, to her dreamscapes in a longer work or collection.
Purple Perilla by Can Xue is translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. It is the third volume in the isolarii series published by Common Era Inc.