The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei (tr. Canaan Morse). NYRB Classics. 144 pp., $14.00
We’re all familiar with unreliable narrators, those first-person storytellers whose words we are not sure we can trust. In The Invisibility Cloak, Ge Fei takes this to the next level: he gives us an unreliable narrator in an unreliable career struggling with unreliable characters in an unreliable country.
Cui (pronounced Tsway) is a recently divorced stereo amplifier builder in late middle-age whose best friend is a swindler and whose sister lies to him to get him to move out of her apartment. He worries whether he’ll have marriage proposals thrust on him from every divorcee he’s set up with and whether his clients’ payments will come through, yet says he’s “the kind of person who likes to let [his] perceptions float on the surface of things,” that “everyone has an inner life, but it’s best if we leave it alone.” But he can’t even understand, or accommodate, his own reactions: early in the novel, he says, “I didn’t shed a single tear at my mother’s funeral. I hurt as much as the rest of them, but I just couldn’t cry. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.” Then later, after describing how his mother disapproved of his marriage: “For a long time after that, I quietly ridiculed her, hated her, to the point of hoping she would die a little sooner. And when she finally passed away, I didn’t shed a single tear for her at the funeral.”
The duplicity, of course, will be taken as commentary on life in China today. And indeed it is: over a decade ago someone said to me that China was so flooded with counterfeits that the only thing you could know were real are your own false teeth, and it’s only truer now. Cui’s main clients for his top-notch amplifiers tend to be either intellectuals or business owners. The intellectuals he describes as wanting “amplifiers to bring out the feeling or color of the music,” but “Dealing with them involves learning how to endure their pontificating”:
For instance, there’s a handful of professors who love to warn me every time we meet that a society like China’s could collapse at any moment. I’ve never brought the subject up myself, yet they still seize every opportunity to sit at their dining tables and guide my understanding. . . . Then there’s another handful who take the exact opposite approach. They believe China is right at the zenith of her history, and that the whole world is gazing up at us in admiration.
The business owners, on the other hand, have “fat wallets and empty souls.” He plays them a “Nursery Record” to show off the quality of his sound system and introduce his clients to orchestral compositions. “You’d think you had fallen in love with ‘classical music,’” he says. “It’s all a delusion, of course.”
It’s a delusion for himself, as well; not even the music at the heart of Cui’s career and audiophilia maintains a reliable purity. “Not only have I never been swindled,” Cui says, “instances of hidden defects or poor-quality replacements have been extraordinarily rare . . . I personally attribute this to a higher-than-average ethical conscience among members of the community.” But this idealism is disabused when one of his clients, a lawyer, retorts, “You know, by day the Nazis sent thousands of Jews to the furnaces without batting an eyelash—they even tossed in newborn babies. But that never prevented them from kicking back in the evenings with their coffee while listening to Mozart or Chopin. . . . The moment capitalism takes root, it creates its own hero.” Cui is as much part of China’s self-deluding economy as the rest of the novel’s cast of characters.
Of course, characters that deceive and distort are not just a commentary on China today, they are a main feature of fiction at its finest. Think of The Story of the Stone, or Jane Austen. One of the reasons Ge Fei’s fiction is as refreshing as it is as Chinese literature in translation is that it is not weighted down with the epic sweep and melodramatic significance of much of what contemporary Chinese literature has so far gained attention in the West. On the contrary, Ge Fei’s writing is both toned down and in tune with contemporary fiction from around the world: as the narrative progresses by digression, there is very little explanation of what the book is about.
Ge Fei’s significance as an author is his ability to bring commentary on contemporary Chinese society into fiction aware of theories about fictional unreliability. As a child Cui’s friend Jiang Songping is described as “a natural politician,” able to convince everyone “that Antonioni was posing as a movie director in order to infiltrate our country’s borders and assassinate the Great Leader, Chairman Mao,” and also “that every pomegranate contained the same number of seeds . . . three hundred and sixty five”; Cui’s sister confirms her distrust of Jiang by counting a pomegranate and finding three hundred and seventy-one, but Antonioni was indeed denounced during the Cultural Revolution for his 1972 documentary Chung Kuo, Cina (likely as part of the Gang of Four’s campaign to undermine Premier Zhou Enlai’s engagements with the outside world). The plot of The Invisibility Cloak hinges on Cui’s plan to buy an apartment with money earned selling his prized Tannoy Autograph speakers—only in production from 1954 to ’74—which he bought at auction at a low price (and which were his only demand in the divorce); explaining the name, though, he writes, “Of course, the English word ‘autograph’ has plenty of direct equivalents in Chinese, but for whatever reason, someone in the hi-fi community translated it as ‘autobiography,’ and the mistake has been accepted as the norm.” China’s tortuous representations of the West and Western fiction’s self-aware blending of fact and factitiousness merge in Ge Fei’s depictions.
The “invisibility cloak” of the title is only mentioned in passing: detailing the mythology surrounding the previous owner of the Autograph speakers, Cui says, “The wildest story I heard was that he could show up at any event unseen because he wore an invisibility cloak.” Perhaps the shady buyer of Cui’s Autographs puts on such a cloak of his own, but if so it only earns the subtlest of suggestions; Cui does not make this connection himself. Or perhaps our external selves and dishonest interactions with others are cloaking our own inner lives and making them invisible. But such conclusions are left for the reader to piece together. As I said, Cui never explains what his story is about. But would we believe him if he did?
What is reliable in The Invisibility Cloak is the translation. This is Canaan Morse’s first full-length novel, but he is one of a new generation of ambitious translators who are redefining standards of quality in writing English without sacrificing accuracy in treating the Chinese. Lexical range tends to flatten in translation, but checking his English against what Ge Fei wrote I am again and again impressed with Morse’s vocabulary (or his handling of a thesaurus as well as a bilingual dictionary), and his ability to find lively, expressive language that never comes off as stilted or stiff. This is essential for any work in translation, of course, but when the work revolves, as it does here, around questions both of reliability and communicability, it is an added bonus that readers do not need to worry about whether The Invisibility Cloak’s inner life has been left alone in another language.
Lucas Klein—radio DJ, union organizer, writer, translator, and editor—graduated Middlebury College (BA) and Yale University (PhD), and is Assistant Professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong. Klein recently translated Xi Chuan’s Notes On the Mosquito: Selected Poems.
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