Title: Feathered Serpent
Author: Xu Xiaobin
Review: A family epic—originally published in China in 1998—that winds its way across generations of Chinese history, not always coherently.
“What is the difference between past and present? In many ways, the present is simply a new version of ancient history.”
Thus in Xu Xiaobin’s Feathered Serpent , a family saga of five generations, the tales of the women of this family blend and bleed into each other, along with the different periods of China’s changing history. Feathered Serpent tells of relationships that are uneasy, that are uncomfortable. It is a story of family misery in a greatly evolving China – from the late 19th century under the Empress Dowager Cixi to life under Mao Zedong in Communist China – and the despairing struggles that Yushe and the five generations of her family go through. As Xu, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, explains in her preface,
“Even though the Chinese people have the ability to forget, all of these things that have happened are deeply carved into the memory of the heroine of this book, and into the minds of countless people of the same generation.”
Xu’s heroine is Yushe, whose name means Feathered Serpent and who belongs to the fourth generation of her family. Yu, as she is known, grows up under the despotic rule of her grandmother, Xuanming, as well as her wretched, self-obsessed mother, Ruomu, who is suspicious and jealous of everyone around her. At the age of six, Yu, “the frailest but most resilient of branches,” kills her baby brother, and whatever chance she had to be loved by her family is killed along with him, thus beginning her lifelong quest for love and acceptance:
“Since childhood she had been longing for love – the love of her parents; later, the love of friends. Only love and friendship would be good medicine; nothing else could bring zest to her life.”
Transport Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo across the Pacific, and you have some sense of the setting for Xiaobin’s allegorical, sometimes fantastical novel. It opens on a curious note, as young Yushe, sensible and sensitive, undergoes a lobotomy so that, her mother insists, she might “preserve the girl’s mental health and allow her to live out the rest of her life as a normal person.” Fortunately for the development of the novel, Yushe seems little worse for the wear, while her two sisters—two, naturally, being the requisite number of sisters in a fairy tale—have travails of different kinds. Xiaobin, a writer in her mid-50s who has published several books in the People’s Republic of China, sets Yushe’s adventures and misadventures against a broad canvas that begins at the end of the 19th century and the last years of the Qing Dynasty and that ends at the turn of the present century. As the tale moves across five generations, it is not always entirely clear where in time it is, and the Western reader may be challenged in keeping its 26 major characters and many more minor ones sorted out. (The dramatis personae at the end of the book is of some help.) Punctuating the text are closely observed scenes, as when one character, shot down by police, notices a car driving away “like a soaring bird whose flapping wings stirred up the filth and dust as it flew off through the still night.” More typical, though, are rather surrealistic moments—involving, in one instance, steamy sex without regard for the fine distinctions of gender but with inventive use of flowers—and aoristic, dreamlike episodes, the better, it appears, to disguise the author’s only partly subtle critique of the Chinese state at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Lyrical, sometimes difficult, and engaging—an allusive, sidelong view of Chinese history by a writer who has seen many of its darker moments. The reader is meant to sympathize with Yu and her painful journey through life but is hindered by the labyrinthine narrative, as Feathered Serpent is not laid out in a linear fashion but jumps back and forth and back and forth again in time, from character to character, from third to first-person point of view. There is even an awkward moment when the author points the reader to an earlier chapter, offering a numbered signpost to a character mentioned early on in the story. And when one character asked another: “Why are you confused? Are you getting old and losing your memory?” I could empathize, lost as I was among the changing narrative and different points of view. It was only after finishing the book that I realized the back pages had a table listing the different generations and characters of the family. Neither does the translation help much. While the language is clear enough, it lacks luster, and as a result, tends to bog this complex book down. In this world where “nearly all beautiful women live ill-fated lives,” Xu picks her way through Yushe’s family as it gradually disintegrates. Feathered Serpent is a bleak tale of tales, of unhappy women in an unhappy family, but it is ultimately let down by the flat language and confusing narrative.
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