Points of Origin by Diao Dou
'There are those who would say that tales of the fantastic can come only from the times of Apuleius or Kafka,' suggests Diao Dou in his newly translated collection, Points of Origin. It's a lie exposed by the Chinese author's own skill, as he proves that both the great and the fantastic are with us now. Diao Dou has been writing for decades in his native language but this is the first opportunity to read his sharp and surreal satires in English. The opening quotation here is only one of a multitude of references to Kafka, both directly and through the technical style and absurdist substance of this important work. There is a story called Metamorphosis, another called Cockroaches, and the cover sports a large and microscopically detailed image of said bug, like a forlorn Gregor Samsa. Through eight short stories and one jumping and winding longer piece, Dou delivers an absolute masterclass on almost every element of the literary craft.
The writing is brave, far removed from an actor shaving their head or putting on weight, or a writer changing style or subject, at the risk of jeopardizing only sales or reputation. This writing is truly brave, as its subject matter covers the full gamut of Chinese life, making no concessions to the ruling cadres (and even drawing in some historical big hitters). From the grand bureaucracy of government to the petit bureaucracy of family and social structure, these are tales of a country with collectivism in the rear mirror and full scale capitalism looming straight ahead. In one almost perfect piece – Squatting – which encompasses all of these cultural elements, a government agency requires that a squatting position is adopted by all those outdoors after 8pm, in the aid of crime prevention. Overzealous officialdom at its finest and a beautifully neat and farcical metaphor.
Technically, the author moves from first to third person, past to present tense, always in service of the story. Creating either the required detachment or providing the rope for his narrators to hang themselves. Always written in a relaxed and easy prose (huge congratulations go to translator Brendan O’Kane for this fine achievement), the technique is seamless and far from grandstanding. He has the skill to create the imagined city of Zhangji, admit it as said construct of imagination and then still pull his characters in and out of it with the skill and verve of Borges. These stories blend the magical with the mundane and the everyday, nonchalantly spinning off into increasingly surreal terrains like a Chinese version of Calvino’s Marcovaldo. Neither of these comparisons are entirely overblown. This is a further master at work.