Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Yu Hua’s “Victory” (tr. from the Chinese by Allan Barr) was originally published in the August 26, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
“Victory,” by Yu Hua, begins with an appealing story telling style: several mysteries are presented to the reader — a young woman discovers among her husband’s belongings a key wrapped in a succession of three envelopes; that same husband calls only to say he has “arrived”; and the woman herself, Lin Hong, hearing footsteps in the staircase outside her apartment door, has a sense of “great damage” about to be done to her.
Someone she thought was close to her had kept a secret from her . . . and this secret had been concealed by time, concealed by time she had imagined to be happy.
After a search, the young woman discovers that the key opens a desk drawer at her husband’s office: there she discovers an envelope with photographs of another woman, that woman’s letters to Lin Hong’s husband, and a telephone number.
Yu Hua kept me interested in the story; as he remarks to Deborah Treisman in Page-Turner, “There is . . . a battle of wills at the heart of this story.” He goes on: “To say that they are in love with each other would not be as apt as to say simply that they are engaged in living. It’s when crisis erupts that they realize they love each other.” The elements of their fight kept me glued to the page: her over-thinking her every move and his complete withdrawal. The story feels real, and yet part of the art of the story is the way the speaker, using what Yu Hua calls a “plain style,” keeps his distance. I really enjoyed it and recommend it.
At the same time, behind the plain style, there is something akin to allegory built into the story. Yu Hua has said: “There are a few writers I really like . . . Shakespeare, Dickens . . . I really like nineteenth century writers . . . Hawthorne . . . and of twentieth century Americans I like Faulkner the best. Among American writers still living, I like Toni Morrison the best” (from a wide ranging interview in 2003 with Michael Standaert for the MCLC Resource Center — click here to read?).
Hawthorne enjoyed allegory, and I think this story bears up well as a classic allegory. I think the allegorical function is what makes it so artful — that it is first and foremost a compellingly mysterious and entertaining story, but at the same time, the story reverberates with numerous possible allusions to political life in China.
In a useful review that appeared in the New Republic (click here), Perry Link discusses the way Yu Hua addresses politics in his writing, especially as it appears in the 2011 novel China in Ten Words. Link proposes that, despite the recent shift in China to what appears to us to be capitalism, “Mao is still present in two ways: first, there are continuities, most notably in the authoritarian structure of Communist Party rule; and second, although there have been major rebounds from Mao, the rebounds themselves are structured by what they rebound from — and again Mao’s ghost persists.”
Link quotes Yu Hua as saying, “[It’s] like being on a swing; the higher you soar on one side, the higher you rise on another.” Despite the swings, though, “there are striking similarities between things that happened then and things that are happening now.”
The New Yorker has gone out of its way to place a strange image of an adult on a swing on the cover of the Yu Hua issue, echoing Yu Hua’s image of the swing as capturing the way Maoist thought stays alive in China.
In this story, the husband is tempted by the ideal of a beautiful woman in a red dress. Red could have any number of meanings, but it could suggest the way in which China keeps the memory of Mao alive, despite the terrible suffering China endured under his rule, could represent a swing which China may be having right now with a resurgence of Maoist talk.
In a Wall Street Journal article just this week (click here), Jeremy Page writes that on a recent trip Chinese President Xi Jinping invoked Mao’s memory in a variety of ways, echoing a political movement in China that Page calls “Maoist revivalism.” Page cites several public appearances in which Mr. Xi glorified Mao and one in which he pointedly ignored the suffering of the people under his rule. At one appearance, Mr. Xi said, “[O]ur red nation will never change color.”
The Wall Street Journal article suggests: “It isn’t just Mr. Xi’s rhetoric that has taken on a Maoist tinge in recent months. He has borrowed from Mao’s tactical playbook, launching a “rectification” campaign to purify the Communist Party, while tightening limits on discussion of ideas such as democracy, rule of law and enforcement of the constitution.”
Obviously, The Wall Street Journal has a conservative view of the world, but the article reveals a swing taking place right now in the political life of China’s leaders. To read Yu Hua, I think it is important to be aware of at least some of the politics that impel his writing, but that, of course, is a huge, challenging canvas.
“Victory” reads easily as an allegory. A somewhat dictatorial husband who holds all the power in a marriage finds that his marriage lacks life. He is drawn to a mysterious young woman in a red dress, exchanging chaste meetings and flirtatious letters. But it is the wife who in the end has the passion that can counter the husband’s dreams of perfection. Here it is the wife who stands in for the people of the nation, while the woman in the red dress represents, perhaps, the emptiness of Maoist idealism. One wonders if Yu Hua is suggesting that the people of China must find a way bring their social contract to life, as if for now, life as a Chinese citizen is settling for “just living.”
But to return to the story telling — Yu Hua sticks the landing as he concludes his tale. Yes, the husband’s “boundless” silence is dispelled by his wife’s passionate kiss. “Her ardor entered his body through his mouth, spreading and expanding boundlessly.” But in fact, we are not sure, and Yu himself tells Treisman we should not be sure, who won the victory in this marriage. But what is sure is that the marriage has finally come to life.
Allegorically speaking, I think Yu is suggesting that the marriage of China’s people and her leaders has not yet come to life. Think of Li Hong: “Her husband’s boundless silence left her at a loss.” There is a paralysis of progress in their little apartment — until the real live wife confronts the dream-girl in the red dress in person.
But what about the importance of “the key”? That’s where we began and that’s where we should end. The essence of Yu Hua’s art appears to be his ability to compress cultural and psychological complexity into vivid image and plainly presented narrative. To discuss his work, one has to dig a little. I hope some others will contribute some further discussion on what the key to “Victory” appears to be to them.
Note: A particular challenge appears to me to be reading Chinese literature in translation. The pet name Qingqing must have particular set of connotations to the Chinese reader, among which may be “highly placed minister or official.” But that is just a guess. I really think one cannot read Chinese literature in translation without some translator’s commentary on key problems the piece presents, and in “Victory” Qingqing must be a central one. I hope someone who reads Chinese will post some additional information.