To enter into the pages of The Last Lover by Chinese author Can Xue, is to surrender yourself to a shimmering, surreal dream world – a space where human souls cross paths with animal spirits, experience love and loss, and embark on journeys that intersect with some measure of a real world then cross back into magical landscapes. There are no clear parameters to follow, once you feel you are beginning to make sense of things, the floor falls away beneath you or you find yourself trapped in a labyrinth, or both at once. Nothing is what it seems, and the main characters are equally confused, conflicted, uncertain about whom to trust or what is happening to them.
Does it all come together at the end? Brilliantly yes. Perhaps. And I’m not entirely certain.
To attempt to outline the plot of The Last Lover would be fruitless. Essentially the novel revolves around several key couples living in an unnamed ostensibly western country. The central figure, if it is possible to see him as such, is Joe. He is an avid reader, capable of losing himself in books, forever weaving a story of his own from the threads of the stories he reads. His wife Maria is a housewife who weaves images into tapestries and seems to have a capacity to channel mystical energies. Daniel is their teenaged son who drops out of school to take up his passion for gardening full-time. The dynamic between the three family members shifts – close on some levels but following separate trajectories on others.
Vincent is Joe’s employer, the owner of a successful clothing company. He seems distracted and at odds from the onset, while his intense wife Lisa is convinced he is having an affair. Apparently he also appears to be able to be in two places at once, a remarkably common occurrence in the world of The Last Lover. Vincent and Lisa are deeply in love but wrestling with the demons of their own peculiar mid-life crises.
Reagan, a client of Vincent’s Rose Clothing Company, is the 50 year-old bachelor and owner of a rubber plantation south of the city where the others live. He is drawn to Ida, a young woman of obscure Asian origin, who is working on his farm. Theirs is probably the most overtly surreal of all the relationships, but that is not imply that any couple has anything approaching a routine domestic existence. The overlapping and entwined connections between the six key characters forms a strong thread that pulls the reader into and through this anfractuous tale.
Winding in and out of the lives of the key figures is an ambiguous cast of other entities – mysterious Asian and/or Middle Eastern women, odd servants and drivers, eccentric loners, beautiful street cleaners with curious doppelgängers and a host of cats, snakes, birds, mice, insects and other creatures. Earthquakes rumble throughout the novel, shaking some characters to the core while passing unnoticed by others. Fires rage, floods wash mountainsides away, roses exert magnetic energies, and dream worlds collide – not just with assumed reality, but between dreamers. Sexual desire arises frequently – at times characters are surprised by the intensity of the arousal, the unexpected gender of their object of attraction and the insubstantiality of most ensuing encounters.
As the story unfolds, moving through of layers of unreality, the tendency is to try look for clues, to assign meaning and value. My thought is that meaning is a slippery concept here, amorphous and shifting. Can Xue herself has advised that modernist literature requires the reader to turn inward to seek the structure of time and space within one’s soul, to be able to grasp the structure of the work. But structure is one thing, meaning is something else entirely. I would argue that this a work that will open itself up to the receptive reader, and be met by each reader on his or her own terms with what they bring to the experience.
I took pages and pages of notes, delighting in tracing connections, amazed by the depth of reading possible. In the end I was most keenly aware of themes of migration, the sense of a lost connection with a home left behind, the loneliness of love, the ambiguity of remembering and forgetting, and the increasingly virtual quality of our connections with others in our modern world. But those are my perceptions at this moment. Can Xue, (her real name is Deng Xiaohua, her pseudonym meaning “dirty snow that refuses to melt”) is a self taught writer. The Cultural Revolution abruptly ended her education after elementary school, so she took to educating herself, reading poetry and fiction and steeping herself in the classical Western canon and Russian literature. She has cited Kafka, Borges, Cervantes and Dante as influences. Echoes of Calvino are strong and I could not help but think of contemporary writers like Ben Okri and Sjón among others.
This is actually my first encounter with contemporary Chinese literature. This morning it was announced as a contender for the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), making it the one title to appear on both major annual translated fiction award longlists. Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s translation is clear, spare and lyrical. She maintains a steady pace and brings to life the sounds that reverberate throughout the text – the su su rustling of pages, si si hissing of snakes, the cha cha whisper of snow – preserving what one imagines might approach the sensory experience of reading The Last Lover in the original Chinese.
Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 / Best Translated Book Award 2015: A demanding read that defeated a few members of our IFFP shadow jury, this was a highly rewarding reading experience for me. I will definitely seek out more of Can Xue’s work. A taste of her short stories, some of which can be found on line and this insightful feature from Music & Literature were helpful, though I avoided reading other interpretations closely before finishing the book. I would encourage a reader interested in a challenge to persevere, open to the riches that this type of literature can offer.
Update: The Last Lover has been awarded the 2015 BTBA Award. Of the six of the ten shortlisted BTBA titles I read it was my favourite all along. Congratulations to Can Xue and Annelise Finegan Wasmoen!