Friday, February 8, 2013

Eileen Chang – Love in a Fallen City

Chinese writer Eileen Chang's life was filled with torment, war, and heartbreak. She expertly channels her personal pain into this collection of short stories. “Love in a Fallen City” follows young heroines as they try to find love and survive in mid-20th century China. The nation was highly volatile at the time, undergoing many social and political changes including the traumatic Japanese invasion during WWII. However, Chang's stories are far more than mere romantic piffle. Her stories are hard-hitting and politically perceptive. I was often impressed by her understanding of human psychology and her ability to mix modern and classical Chinese writing elements.
Some of Chang's stories are better than others, as is to be expected. My personal favorite was the titular “Love in a Fallen City.” At first the story is about unrequited love. A young woman is divorced from her abusive husband. Her conservative family is ashamed of her. Unable to bear their judgement any longer she leaves with an elderly acquaintance and tries to start up a new romance. The relationship is tenuous. Then when the Japanese invade Hong Kong all romantic pretenses fall away into the sobering practicality war necessitates.  Chang's stories are not by any means meant to show the audience how beautiful young love is, but rather how disappointing and frustrating it can be. These women are knocked around by love in a society where a woman's life depends on a good marriage.
Chang paints captivating pictures of a changing China. The old world crumbles around you as you walk through her vivid garden parties, mansions, and streets. The beauty of her prose, even in translation, is amazing. She had a true gift for weaving the threads of a scene.
I especially enjoyed Chang's framing mechanisms. Certain stories, such as “Aloeswood Incense,” start with a second person address to the reader where Chang sets up the story she is going to tell. There is something intimate about this framing technique that recalls the long tradition of oral storytelling.
Chang was highly educated, and like most educated people in Hong Kong, Chang had an extensive education in English. She also studied in England and spent a large chunk of her life in the United States, dying in Los Angeles at the age of 74. One of the stories in “Love in a Fallen City” was translated by Chang herself. I enjoyed this rare opportunity to see her work in her own voice. Eileen Chang is best known in the West for her short story “Lust, Caution” which was turned into a big-budget film in 2007 by director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.) Hopefully Chang's well-deserved reputation as one of the most important Asian writers of the 20th century will continue to grow.

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