Review of Can Xue’s «Mystery Train»

On Light, Influences, and Strangeness in Can Xue’s Mystery Train, translated by Natascha Bruce

by Kenny Sui-Fung Yim

To become legible to the West is no mean feat.

Xue, Can. Mystery Train, translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce. Sublunary Editions, October 2022, 162 pages, $18.00. ISBN: 9781955190404

As a beginning fiction writer, I discovered the metaphor of car headlights, which is attributed to E.L. Doctorow and described by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. This image came back to me as I read the section in Mystery Train where a flashlight illuminates only a few feet in front of the characters. Just as a beginning fiction writer simply writes one word or one sentence at a time, a driver can travel an entire journey in the dark, with just a few feet of light at a time. 

Mystery Train is a fantastic story to teach to fiction writers for its attention to language, but also because it presents opportunities for various exercises. One interesting exercise for a fiction writer might be to track the movement/space of the story. For instance, how far do characters travel? Where do they come from and where do they go? The context of China is very important here. China is only 2% smaller than the United States in land, but the population is 4.35 times greater. What does this suggest about the space in which the story takes place?

In the first half of the story, only a skeleton crew of characters begins to emerge, including a kitchen maid/Miss Birdbrain/Birdie, a police officer, a mysterious “top-bunk” man, and the conductor. We’re only given scattered names, Scratch being the most prominent, as he is the focal point of the narrative. Yet peripheral figures seem prominent – it feels more populated than the characters who are directly mentioned. 

Can Xue has described her writing process as free-flowing with minimal, if any, edits, and this process is reflected in the writing, which feels helter-skelter and undirected. These aren’t negative traits, but it’s clear that the narrative doesn’t have a final resting spot. It moves in its own way.

While I don’t have the original in front of me as I write this review, having read some Can Xue in Chinese and been fascinated by the development of her voice and style in English through a variety of translators, I can see ways that Natascha Bruce carries meaning across the Chinese-English divide. As a practicing translator, I find that Can Xue works on various levels. On the sentence level, there are immediate sensory descriptions. At the scene level, there are moments that unfold. And on the largest scale possible, there are moods and atmospheres that she evokes. The meticulous attention Bruce pays at a granular level will have positive ramifications on the larger scales; for instance, Bruce’s choice to translate the Chinese into “soft-sleeper-car” gives a flavor of the world, just foreign enough without being so foreign as to be alienating. Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake begins in a similar way, but it is the choice of words, in this new Chinese context, where Bruce makes inroads. 

This is no Agatha Christie mystery with a dead body at its center. Instead, we have Scratch. Rather than Christie, the novella reminded me more of the early aughts TV show Lost with its decontextualized vibes, where the characters are all in a purgatorial state, trapped in a world where arbitrary events happen with no apparent logic connecting them. People appear and disappear, and there are conversations about how talking cures all. Here, we are given some bare bones information about why the story is set where it is (a soft-sleeper car), but the frustration on the part of the narrator (Scratch) at not having been given sufficient funds by his boss, or enough accompanying rationale, makes this story different from Lost. To become legible to the West is no mean feat. 

The author, Can Xue, may not be the most representative of China, but she has remarkably made the transit better than most. Her already very extensive body of work is ripe for review. Her work has come into existence for English readers in a patchwork of different publishers and translators. Her latest novella, Mystery Train, is published by Sublunary Editions and translated by Bruce, a relative newcomer and fresh voice for long-time Can Xue devotees.

In Evan James’s June 8, 2017 New Yorker article The Mysterious Frontiers of Can Xue,” James notices that Can Xue, which is a nom de plume, is a “moniker [which] hints at the author’s contrary relationship to contemporary Chinese literary culture, which, she has said, provides ‘no support for originality, which is sometimes even suppressed.’” In an otherwise seamlessly argued article, James draws an inference here in connecting a pseudonym with radicalness that doesn’t quite fit. In fact, most writers in China use alternative names, including the most canonical female writer of the last century, Bing Xin, and Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan. Yet, the point is well taken that Can Xue is a revolutionary figure of originality. The premise of the novella is standard fare; there are plenty of stories set on trains or near train stations, with a commoner as the main character. But her particular way of excavating personal neuroses is unique. Another major example is that in a culture that treats food as the topmost priority, there is little mention of it, aside from the kitchen maid. There aren’t the usual descriptions of a huge spread of dishes, perhaps because they’re trapped in a train car.

To compare Can Xue to another writer of Chinese descent, Yiyun Li, it is clear they both have deep imaginative reserves to draw from, a wide set of references. The Russians are a shared reference. Li has repeatedly noted her indebtedness to Leo Tolstoy, and it is evident from the work that Can Xue has affinities with Nikolai Gogol. Gogol’s tale of a man without a nose is reminiscent of Can Xue’s tale of critters living under the ground in Vertical Motion. The translation for the word “critter” is probably as complex as the one that translators of Kafka’s Metamorphosis must contend with when they encounter the novella’s first line – the vermin.

However, Li and Can Xue diverge greatly in their style. Li draws more deeply from personal experience, though Can Xue’s work seems to be an excavation of personal fears and anxieties around ideas like overpopulation, garbage accrual, and the future of the human race. In Mystery Train, the fear revolves around the knowability of other humans, questions of intimacy and how strangers become familiar. 

Can Xue titles her stories in an American fashion, or else her translators have borrowed from the cultural capital of writers like Gabriel García Márquez, whose story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” seems to echo across many of her stories including “The Child Who Raised Poisonous Snakes,” which was my personal introduction to Can Xue’s work. I wondered whether the marketing for Mystery Train came in the wake of Helen Oyememi’s successful novel, Peaces, which is also set on a train, though Oyememi’s story contains two male protagonists, married to each other and on their honeymoon. 

In terms of translator’s choices, I found Bruce’s translation to be closer than prior translators’ to the idiom of the common English reader. While the sounds of the language get lost and are completely missing in a translation, previous translators have snuck in, Trojan horse style, some of Can Xue’s original language. For instance, in Vertical Motion, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping, the onomatopoeic words cha and gege are carried over, yet they are shorn of context, so it feels difficult to understand exactly what they mean. Bruce opts to use more colloquial words that would be familiar to her English-speaking audience, words like “hush” and “bah” (as in “bah humbug”). 

Reading Chinese makes me see gaps and holes in the English alphabet that I’d otherwise ignore. To my eyes, letters look different after I switch from Chinese to English, so any type of translation between the languages is a feat in and of itself. There are layers of difficulty that must be overcome, even at the most basic level, such as a person’s name. Traditionally, names are represented in transliterated pinyin, but Bruce makes a slyly successful decision to translate the name directly to “Scratch.” As a chicken farm laborer, the name is very evocative. 

Finally, I’ve been thinking of the words strange and stranger, and how they have slightly different meanings. Strange connotes that which is weird or unusual, while a stranger is someone who is not necessarily weird or unusual, but is simply unfamiliar. The important translation work of Bruce and others – bringing stories like Can Xue’s, which may seem strange, to a new audience – is much like making friends with a stranger. At some point, everyone is a stranger, even though not everyone is strange or has strange habits. The distinction is a fine but important one that works of translation help me see.

Kenny Sui-Fung Yim  (嚴兆豐)  received a Master of Arts in English Literature from Middlebury College – Bread Loaf School. During the course of the program, he studied at their New Mexico, Oxford, and Vermont campuses. While there, he was awarded scholarships, including the Rocky Gooch and the Charles J. Orr. He was an American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) mentee in 2022.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 3, 2023

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