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637,611 Characters to Go

murrayjames

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I recently finished reading 《在细雨中呼喊》 by 余华. It is the third novel by 余华 I have read, following the perennial Chinese Forums favorites 《活着》 and 《许三观卖血记》.

 

《在细雨中呼喊》 is about a young boy and the events that happen to the people around him in two villages over a seven-year period. The novel has a fascinating structure and contains some great storytelling. It is also an uneven book. Its opening and closing sections are fantastic. The middle chapters are overlong and not well executed. I lost interest in the novel halfway. I continued reading to the end, though, and am glad I did.

 

The narrative core of story is this: a six-year-old boy, the middle of three brothers, is growing up with his biological family in the village 南门. Unwanted by his father, he is sold to a couple from another village, 孙荡. The boy goes to 孙荡 and lives there for six years. Following a series of colorful and improbable events, the boy returns to 南门.

 

In some ways, 《在细雨中呼喊》 is less of a novel and more of a novel skeleton. It is not a single overarching story. It is a collection of anecdotes. The novel lacks a clearly defined protagonist. Except for the surreal beginning and ending of the book and a few other sections, the boy-narrator is not a central character. His name, 孙光林, appears only three times in the entire novel. Many of the anecdotes do not involve him. The anecdotes are about other people: his family members, classmates, friends, teachers.

 

The story is told out of chronological order. The beginning of the book describes the narrator’s return to 南门 after six years in 孙荡; the ending does, too. A long middle section describes events that occur before the narrator is born. The narrative is told from a first-person perspective throughout, which is confusing in places. Certain anecdotes contain details the narrator would not have had access to, e.g., the precise movements of his adopted father during a violent post-coital hand grenade rampage.

 

The most powerful aspect of 《在细雨中呼喊》 is its death stories. These are stories that culminate in the mortal or narrative end of established characters. 余华 has this uncommon ability to bring about and describe the deaths of characters the reader is invested in in plain terms, without pathos, to great emotional or comic effect. (The deaths of 福贵’s daughter 凤霞 in 《活着》 and 许三观’s cuckolding nemesis 何小勇 in 《许三观卖血记》are two other examples of this.)

 

At times, 余华 chains multiple deaths together, revealing them with a preternatural timing that shocks the reader. In a ten-page section called 《婚礼》, a woman who was humiliated by her cowardly ex-lover commits suicide at the man’s wedding reception. Two pages later: the bride, humiliated by the same coward, commits suicide too. 《婚礼》 is a modest masterpiece. I was haunted by it when I first read it and have thought about it several times since.

 

 (The absurd deaths of 二喜 and 苦根 in 《活着》 are two other examples of 余华’s death chaining. Near the end of the book, 福贵’s sole remaining family members are killed off in ridiculous ways: crushed to a non-identifiable pulp in a construction accident; and choked to death on string beans. Unlike the sad slow rhythm of the rest of the novel, 二喜 and 苦根 are offed quickly, as though their deaths were required by some cruel inexorable narrative logic. After their deaths, 福贵 is old and alone except for an old ox that represents the memories of his deceased family. In the space of a few pages, the novel transforms from historical tragedy to existential meta-story.)

 

According to @imron’s Chinese Text Analyser, 《在细雨中呼喊》 contains about 600 more unique characters and about 3000 more unique words than both 《活着》 and 《许三观卖血记》. For me, this difference made for a noticeable increase in difficulty, particularly in the middle part of the novel.

 

《活着》                    1910 unique characters        4426 unique words

《许三观卖血记》    2035 unique characters        4640 unique words

《在细雨中呼喊》    2602 unique characters        7521 unique words


《在细雨中呼喊》 has a bad reputation on Chinese Forums. @Geiko wrote that the “book was very disappointing”; @wushijiao “got bored with it midway”; @zander1 found it “totally impenetrable”; and @imron added it to a list of books to “avoid entirely.” I don’t think the book is as bad as they say, and recommend it despite its problems. In some parts the storytelling is excellent.

 

Link to 《在细雨中呼喊》:
http://yuedu.163.com/source/0b6b9c159cd0455ea90729a756a1ca0c_4

 

Some statistics:
Characters read this year: 362,389

Characters left to read this year: 637,611

Percent of goal completed: 36.2% 
  
List of things read:

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《在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话》by 毛泽东  (18,276 characters)

《自杀日记》by 丁玲   (4,567 characters)

《我没有自己的名字》by 余华   (8,416 characters)

《手》by 萧红   (7,477 characters)

《牛》by 沈从文   (8,097 characters) 

《彭德怀速写》by 丁玲   (693 characters)

《我怎样飞向了自由的天地》by 丁玲   (2,176 characters)
《IBM Cloud文档:Personality Insights》 by IBM   (25,098 characters)

《夜》by 丁玲   (4,218 characters)

《虎雏》by 沈从文   (46,945 characters)

《在巴黎大戏院》 by 施蛰存 (6,181 characters)

《分析Sonny Stitt即兴与演奏特点——以专辑《Only the Blues》中曲目 《Blues for Bags》为例》  (5,483 characters)

《一个女剧院的生活》 by 沈从文   (61,154 characters) 

《致银河》 by 王小波   (17,715 characters) 

《在细雨中呼喊》 by 余华  (132,769 characters)



4 Comments


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@imron added it to a list of books to “avoid entirely.”

To further clarify I suppose it should really be a list of books that beginners should "avoid entirely".

 

The confusing narrative structure, lack of clear protagonist and a timeline that jumps around add a level of difficulty that can make it difficult to make sense of what is going on.  If someone is at the point where they are still not that comfortable reading novels then it will just compound these difficulties.

 

If you're going to read it, it should be done once you already have a dozen (or more) books under your belt and are comfortable with reading, and not say because you read 《活着》as a first book and thought it was quite easy and then tried《许三观卖血记》as a second book and thought it was also very manageable, and decide to try《在细雨中呼喊》as your third book because you expect it to be similar in difficulty to the previous two books but instead it throws you completely for a loop.

 

637,611 Characters to Go

👍 Nearly halfway!

 

 

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The most powerful aspect of 《在细雨中呼喊》 is its death stories. These are stories that culminate in the mortal or narrative end of established characters. 

 

Thanks for your review! It reminded me of Yu Hua's 2013 novel, 第七天 (The Seventh Day). He must have felt there was a lot of literary (and political) potential in the 'beyond death', and in this novel he does follow his characters into the netherword. I haven't read 在细雨中呼喊, but I enjoyed the somewhat macabre mixture of surrealism, grotesque fantasy and social satire in 第七天 .

I think The Seventh Day may be an easier read, it has a central plot - though also goes back and forth in time and place, jumping between this world and the netherworld, and meanders into side stories, but it is not so hard to follow. The language is plain and direct (the specialised mortuary vocabulary in the first few pages is easy to deal with popup dictionaries, the rest is easy) ,  the dialogues are almost infantile in their simplicity.


You can find an online reading version here: https://www.99lib.net/book/3723/index.htm

and here a review of the English translation.
 

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murrayjames

Posted

On 6/13/2019 at 9:00 AM, imron said:

If you're going to read it, it should be done once you already have a dozen (or more) books under your belt and are comfortable with reading, and not say because you read 《活着》as a first book and thought it was quite easy and then tried《许三观卖血记》as a second book and thought it was also very manageable, and decide to try《在细雨中呼喊》as your third book because you expect it to be similar in difficulty to the previous two books but instead it throws you completely for a loop.

 

That’s what I kind of did. I started reading 《在细雨中呼喊》 last year but the book was too difficult for me. So I read some other books first and came back to it.

 

 

On 6/13/2019 at 9:00 AM, imron said:

👍 Nearly halfway!

 

Thanks imron! Appreciate the encouragement. At my current rate, I should reach 500,000 characters around the end of the month.

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murrayjames

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@Luxi, 《第七天》 is on my list of books to read this year. Bought it on paperback.

 

I checked a digital version of 《第七天》 in Chinese Text Analyser. You’re right. It is simpler than 《在细雨中呼喊》, vocabulary-wise. Shorter too.

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