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Review: Diao Dou’s Points of Origin

Hope Abbott reviews the otherwordly, yet understated, Points of Origin—the first English translation of any work by the award-winning Chinese author Diao Dou

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Points of Origin is the first piece of work by the award winning Chinese author Diao Dou to be translated into English. This collection of short stories cleverly exploits his range of storytelling. He mixes the mystic with the mundane, describing a vibrant and sometimes uncomfortably honest view of life.

There are nine stories in all. The first is Cockroaches; a town is overrun by the pests, and a man bent on destroying them is slowly sent mad by his quarry. The influences of Kafka are evident, even reflected on the cover. I’m not particularly squeamish but I was left itching all over after reading it. Vivisections is a collection of very short, almost anecdotal tales, each relating to a certain body part. Points of Origin, the story that gives the book its title, includes one of my favourite literary tropes—it may feel like a wandering and sometimes directionless tale, but in the end, everything connects.

The stories are told from various points of view. Adults, children, even Diao himself pops up to narrate one. Throughout all the stories, the author’s voice is clear and they feel very personal. This makes the moments of sadness even more poignant. Although the perspectives vary, the same fluid pace remains throughout. The beautiful imagery paints a vivid picture of Diao’s China, and the characters that inhabit it, without being hyperbolic. There isn’t a vague moment, and you feel firmly planted in the story. In Metamorphisis (a story about an old man moving to the city with his gifted cat) there are sequences that feel entirely alive.

The book has been translated from Mandarin, and there were some points where this was evident. Talking about translating Diao’s work into English, Brenden O’Kane said “the most glaring difficulty is the lack of almost any shared history or cultural touchstones. There are things Chinese authors can throw out and reasonably expect their readers to know that you can’t throw at English-speaking readers”. I only found a few phrases that we wouldn’t use, or simply do not have colloquial translations for. However, this wasn’t jarring. It reminds the reader that the original language is not English and is intrinsic to the way you experience the book.

The humour you can find in this book is not obvious, but I often found myself smiling wryly at a subtle joke. This is Diao’s style—the author is a celebrated satirist in his homeland, and I can see why. You constantly feel like he is trying to tell you something that at first is not apparent, even in the most domestic and routine situations. The stories almost sound like fables, each one teaching the reader a lesson about life, but they are also contemporary, ranging from China’s reasonably recent collectivist past, up until more modern times. The understated comedy is contrasted against situations that are bluntly ridiculous. For example, to lower the nocturnal crime rates in a city, the local government introduces the rule that anyone moving about after 8pm must do so while squatting.

These stories are about people from all classes and, alongside Diao’s narration, this contributes to the intimate mood. However it’s the magic that makes the stories so enjoyable to read. This can be outright, fake cities come alive, a cat that can talk, or just the quiet whisper of something that isn’t quite normal. It embellishes the stories just the right amount, camouflaging the observations on relationships, on class, on family and the many other social and moral issues that are brought up. Diao has been praised for his social commentary, and Comma Press, the publishers behind this introduction of the satirist’s work to the English speaking world, point out that “these stories offer a very particular window into the contemporary Chinese psyche”. As someone who is studying Chinese, it is very interesting to read a book that is written by a Chinese author, for a Chinese audience. I have often thought that China is a country that is a mystery to Westerners, and I found Diao’s honest portrayal of a range of Chinese characters very enlightening.

Whenever you listen to an album, it is unlikely that you like all the songs on it. I find myself in the same situation with collections of short stories all too often. However, for the first time I enjoyed them all. It is well pitched, and easy to read, without scrimping on depth. The variation in length and tone means you don’t get bored and I finished it feeling satisfied. There’s nothing I like more than a good balance of humour and emotional complexity, and Diao achieves this easily. The stories range from the creepy to the romantic to the ridiculous and are accompanied by beautiful descriptions of day-to-day life. It keeps you under their spell throughout.