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》:
Characters read this year: 362,389
Characters left to read this year: 637,611
Percent of goal completed: 36.2%
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《在细雨中呼喊》 by 余华 (132,769 characters)