Ma Boles Second Life cover[Open Letter Books; 2018]

Tr. by Howard Goldblatt

There is a crude cutout of a human figure a bit off balance in black, mirrored by a larger version in beige, a sort of steering wheel and four pieces of written text on beige, green, black, and gray fields of abstract space between human outlines. I read the name of the author, title, and translator on the cover, then I open Ma Bo’le’s Second Life and read the copyright page. These two lines catch my attention:

The translator has completed the original unfinished work and has placed it in a contemporary context. A full explanation is given in the translation’s afterward.

I wonder if it’s a spelling mistake or a conceptual detail. Afterward. Afterword. One is a deep wet ocean and the other is a high, dry library. I dive up and out and put my index finger on the cover.

How did Howard Goldblatt’s role evolve from being “the translator” on the cover of the book to the one who has “translated, edited, and completed this unfinished work” on the first page? What does “completed” mean?

I read the back cover.

Incredibly well respected during her short, difficult lifetime, Xiao Hong’s final novel is an undiscovered masterpiece, a philosophical comedy in the vein of Bouvard and Péchuet, finally available to English readers in Howard Goldblatt’s inventive rendering.

From “translated” to “completed” to “inventive rendering.” I open the book from the back and flip through the four pages of the afterword by the translator.

I have spent more than four decades in the wonderful company — figuratively, intellectually, and emotionally — of Xiao Hong. I can only hope that she would have approved of our collaboration.

Who is collaborating?

Xiao Hong (1911-1942), a Chinese writer, died at the age of 31 in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion. Howard Goldblatt, a literary translator, born in 1939, resides in Indiana, USA, has translated more than sixty works of Chinese literature.

It strikes me as strange to hope for the past and for approval from the dead, and I suddenly feel the need to know when exactly Xiao Hong’s Ma Bo’le turns into Goldblatt’s Ma Bo’le. I flip through the book. There are seventeen continuous chapters “bookended by reflections on the story and two parts of a fictional dialogue between a representative of a fabricated Hong Kong historical society and the grown son of the novel’s protagonist following the discovery of a long-lost, anonymous manuscript,” as the framing story around the actual novel is explained in the afterword by the translator.

Howard Goldblatt’s story, which frames and “completes” Xiao Hong’s unfinished novel, is set in 1984 in Hong Kong, and it describes how a representative of the Hong Kong Historical Society, “a woman of clear Cantonese stock — petite, with a small face ending in a pointed chin, hair cut short to exude efficiency,” delivers a handwritten manuscript from the time of the Japanese invasion to David Ma, a storyteller for Hong Kong Radio. The title page of the manuscript is missing, and therewith also the title of the work and the author. But the Society assumes that David Ma is the son of the protagonist of the story and wants him to share his impressions before they make the manuscript available in book form. David Ma is reluctant to read the manuscript. He is livid about the fact that the story begins with: “Ma Bo’le was a coward even before the war.”

“Tell me, do you really expect me to dignify that insulting rubbish with a comment?” he asks the woman, who has explained to him earlier that: “Interestingly, the writing and, to some degree, the tone, change after chapter fourteen, which implies that, for whatever reason, there were two authors, but I suspect we’ll never know either of them.”

This laborious, fictional introduction of two anonymous authors, and the changing tone and a missing first page, reads like a justification for what must have been a very complicated ethical and technical question for Howard Goldblatt and his publishers. And this is because they never got permission to complete the unfinished work. It’s impossible to get it. Who is there to grant this permission, when the author is dead?

The reader. The reader will have to decide if it is ok to do the wrong thing for the right reason or the right thing for the wrong reason or the right thing for the right reason or the wrong thing for the wrong reason.

I recently came upon the term “moral economies” in Philip J. Deloria’s book Playing Indian. Deloria uses the term, coined by E.P. Thompson, to describe “complex systems of customary rights and obligations, most of which shared ambiguous, interlocking relations with formalized law — and most of which were made visible only when threatened by formal authority. Deloria introduces the concept of “moral economies” when he describes the unspoken agreements between official gamekeepers and local poachers in the forests of 18th century England. Poachers blackened their faces in order to disguise their identities at a time when deer hunting in disguise was a felony, yet the law remained largely unenforced. Official gamekeepers turned a blind eye to many offenses, realizing that a poacher’s family would simply end up on the local dole if they put the offenders in jail. Thus, “Reinforced by centuries of practice and symbiotic relation between law and custom, the forest residents understood the working system of the forest to be a form of law.”

When the words “moral economies” entered my brain for the first time it felt as if the idea had long been settled in the forest of my psyche where, I suddenly realized, I keep my scripts for being a poacher and a gamekeeper; or, to say it more precisely, where my personal history and the culture I grew up in has stored those scripts for me, just in case I need them. The words: “moral economies” got me thinking in Washington D.C. after I had spent the day walking down the National Mall from monument to memorial to monument to memorial in order to learn more about US history. I don’t need those monuments, I thought, to remind me that I live a self-contradictory life in an absurd society. But they help, in their own self-contradictory ways, to make me monumentally afraid of reinforcing what’s wrong when I am asking poacher and gamekeeper questions such as: How can it be done right in English to complete the work of a Chinese author who couldn’t finish her work, because she died prematurely almost eighty years ago in Hong Kong from a combination of infections and a botched operation?

To his credit Howard Goldblatt has included enough actual information, fictional transparency, and change in tone into his collaboration with a woman that died almost eighty years ago, to honor the fact that Xiao Hong’s Ma Bo’le is very different from Howard Goldblatt’s Ma Bo’le, even though its impossible and most likely unnecessary to draw a clear line between the two. As of now, with the information provided the English-speaking reader can decide to read or not to read this novel as it currently exists in English, or to learn Chinese and read the original.

Xiao Hong’s depiction of Ma Bo’le is radical. And it’s extra radical, of course, because her story abruptly ended, cut short by her own death. It is as bleak and brutal as the particulars of the Second Sino-Japanese War. In her version, Ma Bo’le starts out as a cheating, self-pitying, financially well-off asshole. “Ma Bo’le was a coward even before the war.” Later on Howard Goldblatt develops this coward into a decent man with good intentions, who eventually turns bad situations into somewhat good ones.

While Xiao Hong’s fourteen chapters read like an unforgiving manual on how to piss a life and a family away in a country being raped by outside forces, Howard Goldblatt in the concluding chapters and the story that frame the beginning and the end, creates a sort of thoughtful, pacifying atmosphere, especially when he eventually enables Ma Bo’le’s son to reflect on the past with pride. After David Ma, the protagonist’s fictional son, has read the manuscript two times while nursing a pot of tea, his last words to Mrs. Lam, the woman from the Historical Society are: “As a courtesy to me and my family, and especially to a man of whom I am proud, my father,” he says, “I ask only that you include the following statement at the beginning of the book: THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION, NOT THE TRUE ACCOUNT OF A REAL FAMILY.”

It seems to me that David Ma’s words have been written by a very considerate man, who has experience with making contracts with himself and others that will protect him and others from having to face terrible things (like the particulars of war that happen without any consensus or adherence to contracts) head on like a fighting bull, or curled up, completely helpless, like a lamb with four broken legs. I feel for him, I understand the motivation, because I am extremely thankful for never having been in a war and want to keep it like this. But it’s not a good ending for this particular novel. Nobody ever needs to be proud of characters like Ma Bo’le, not even other characters in novels, especially not fictional sons. This way, we’ll never break the cycle.

What’s exciting about an unapologetic novel is that it allows the reader to full-heartedly loathe beautifully fleshed out loafers like Ma Bo’le, that it gives me space to imagine genuine assholes, that it enables me to despise and relish stupidity because I can laugh about ridiculous and demeaning observations and pointless actions for comic relief. Humor helps in dark times and it’s good for the current state of my soul to fall on my knees and thank the gods for putting wealthy, entitled, psychologically damaged men like Ma Bo’le into situations where they actually can do the right thing ––– carry his daughter over the Nanjing Bridge and save her from dying, for example.

Xiao Hong’s Ma Bo’le is a man in his early 30’s from the gentry class in Qingdao, who has extreme mood swings, depression and delusions, cash in his pocket, a wife with something like a double chin and a mind that “has never been visited by a single thought,” and three children with emotional and behavioral problems. He lives in a house with his parents, brother, and sister in law, Mama Geng, the elderly housekeeper, a slave girl that was purchased at the age of seven for thirty Yuan that would have been “better spent on goldfish” and who Ma Bo’le’s mother has never beaten up “without regretting it afterward,” a sick but therefore incredibly cheap rickshaw-puller, an elderly cook, and Jesus Christ, “Praise the Lord,” who has been welcomed into every nook and cranny of every room and every heart in this house, after Ma Bo’le’s father’s life and mind and that of his subordinates was thoroughly transformed by Christian missionaries. Because Ma Bo’le’s father’s credo is “Western things are better than Chinese things,” he has renamed his grandchildren after his favorite Biblical characters. The oldest grandson Dawei is David. The one in the middle, Yuese is Joseph and the smallest one, the girl Yage, is Jacob. Their grandfather insists that they be known only by those names. Ma Bo’le doesn’t care. His wife and parents call him Paul, but he calls himself Bo’le because he didn’t like Bao-luo, the Chinese equivalent of Paul his father had given him as a name.

Ma Bo’le is very aware and critical of the contradictions in his life. He has his wits and his opinions, his aspirations and no job, which affords him to have very high expectations and time to check out huge stacks of books from the library to put in his bookshelf. He wants to be a novelist, but cannot write the timely patriotic novel he hopes would make him money. He suffers. Tears roll down his cheeks. He is adventurous enough to be tortured by general dullness, and equipped with enough sensibility to experience the debilitating ways his family members live their lives as torture. When he cannot take it any longer, he begs for money and accepts the Lord’s blessings to start a publishing house with his father’s capital in Shanghai. His father’s investment money lasts for three, first interesting then depressing months smoking, drinking, and discussing patriotic politics with budding Chinese poets in a three-story building situated in the Shanghai French Concession, an area occupied and governed by the French from 1848-1943. No book ever gets published or written. Ma Bo’le returns home in disgrace and is given the silent treatment by his family. Everyone looks down on him, which makes him desperately hope that the Japanese will invade China soon. He longs for catastrophic outside destruction and man-made chaos, so he can escape the unfortunate and utterly unfair situation of having to live with a family who treats him “like Satan was treated in the Bible,” reinvent himself as a refugee and engage in interesting philosophic questions of the refugee life, such as frugality.

Ma Bo’le has two gifts that help him survive. One: He is able to see everything that’s wrong in the world, sum it up and spit it out in two words: “Bloody Chinese!” As it helps him and possibly others to put everything in context, he uses the phrase constantly. When his father makes him beg for money, when the rickshaw puller lies on the ground about to die, when he reads a foreign novel that he deems superior in comparison to Chinese literature, when a servant breaks a drinking glass, when his mother prays to Jesus on her knees, when the roasted duck is undercooked . . . ”Bloody Chinese!”

His second gift is his escape strategy: “His catchphrase? Always look for the nearest exit.” So, whenever the situation reaches a point where the only possible next step would be suicide or being killed by the rain of Japanese bombs, Ma Bo’le gets up and leaves his family, his father, his wife, his children, his depression, the occupation, the Bible, and Westernization from Qingdao to Shanghai to Hankou to Wuchang to Chongqing to Hong Kong. Sometimes he goes alone, sometimes he asks his family to follow him, simply because his wife manages the family money, without which even the truest refugee can’t survive.

Ma Bo’le’s life is horrible and grotesque, until he starts acting out the role of a refugee against the realities of a brutal military invasion of China. It feels deeply tragic that he needs an actual war right in front of his face to get up and to do something meaningful with his life and his family, which is to be on the run and survive. Without having been forced to engage in the realities of the Japanese invasion and the violence and helplessness that came with it, it would have been impossible for Ma Bo’le, for example, to enjoy the taste and the texture of a vegetable bun. And wouldn’t that amount to a meaningless life, to imagine a human unable to experience the most banal yet absolutely fundamental joys of being alive?

His family’s “refugee trail” leads from Qingdao to Shanghai via an overcrowded train over the Song River Bridge to Nanjing into a dirty hotel into a filthy steamship to Hankou with a rickshaw to Wuchang, where the existence of a shop called “Anyone’s Guess,” that sells steamed, stuffed buns called baozi makes Ma Bo’le experience gratitude. For the first time in his life he is grateful. It is as if he has finally has earned the right to eat buns. Ma Bo’le consumes those buns with comfort and, being Ma Bo’le of course, immediately envisions himself mastering the art of bun making and eventually becoming a bun-seller one day, together with his son. He constantly thinks and speaks about baozi as if they were the harbingers of a great future. He praises baozi like people today praise artisan coffee, he glorifies the steamed buns as if they were the greatest heroes of war, and it’s exactly this attitude and mindset that makes Xiao Hong’s writing so moving, relevant, and clear in its message: the great honors achieved in wars ought to be pinned to the warm and steaming chests of horribly innocent buns.

Hannah Arendt has written about Bertolt Brecht, that “Brecht’s early violent cynicism was a rather belated reaction to the overwhelming discovery that, as Nietzsche had said, ‘God was dead’ — and man was free to live and love howsoever he pleased, thanking whomsoever he pleased for the existence of the world.”

Bertolt Brecht and Xiao Hong have written in similar times during similar circumstances, as refugees on the run. In their works, the reigning moral economies are disturbed, rendered absurd, opening a perhaps limited, but nevertheless worthwhile, possibility for a new order. In 1939 as a Danish exile, Brecht wrote: “Der Gute Mensch von Sezchuan” (The Good Person of Szechwan), a play about a young Chinese Prostitute Shen Teh, who can’t be good in a bad world that would abuse her, if she would — a situation so existential, it eventually forces her to invent an alter ego and to act upon the world as her bad, male cousin Shui Ta, in order to hide and protect the good side of herself and be able to survive.

I conclude thinking about Ma Bo’le with Part II of Bertolt Brecht’s An die Nachgeborenen (To Those who follow in our Wake) in a translation by H.R.Hays, and I feel lucky that I can read and understand the original. It’s beautiful to be able to compare and it makes me wish I could also speak and read Chinese.


In die Städte kam ich zur Zeit der Unordnung
Als da Hunger herrschte.
Unter die Menschen kam ich zu der Zeit des Aufruhrs
Und ich empörte mich mit ihnen.
So verging meine Zeit
Die auf Erden mir gegeben war.

Mein Essen aß ich zwischen den Schlachten
Schlafen legte ich mich unter die Mörder
Der Liebe pflegte ich achtlos
Und die Natur sah ich ohne Geduld.
So verging meine Zeit
Die auf Erden mir gegeben war.

Die Straßen führten in den Sumpf zu meiner Zeit.
Die Sprache verriet mich dem Schlächter.
Ich vermochte nur wenig. Aber die Herrschenden
Saßen ohne mich sicherer, das hoffte ich.
So verging meine Zeit
Die auf Erden mir gegeben war.

Die Kräfte waren gering. Das Ziel
Lag in großer Ferne
Es war deutlich sichtbar, wenn auch für mich
Kaum zu erreichen.
So verging meine Zeit
Die auf Erden mir gegeben war.



I came into the cities in a time of disorder
As hunger reigned.
I came among men in a time of turmoil
And I rose up with them.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

I ate my food between slaughters.
I laid down to sleep among murderers.
I tended to love with abandon.
I looked upon nature with impatience.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

In my time streets led into a swamp.
My language betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers sat more securely, or so I hoped.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

The powers were so limited. The goal
Lay far in the distance
It could clearly be seen although even I
Could hardly hope to reach it.
And so passed
The time given to me on earth.

Franziska Lamprecht is an artist who started writing as an extension of the long-term process based works, she produces together with her husband Hajoe Moderegger under the name eteam. Their projects have been featured at PS1 NY, MUMOK Vienna, Centre Pompidou Paris, Transmediale Berlin, Taiwan International Documentary Festival, New York Video Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, the 11th Biennale of Moving Images in Geneva, among many others.

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