In Other Words

All Things Tend­ing To­wards the Eter­nal by Kath­leen Lee; Muse by Jonathan Galassi

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

by Kath­leen Lee, Tri­quar­terly/North­west­ern Univer­sity Press, 312 pages

All Things Tend­ing To­wards the Eter­nal, a novel by Santa Fe-based au­thor Kath­leen Lee, is the kind of book that is “about” some­thing (trav­els through China in 1989, the year of the Tianan­men Square protests) but is re­ally about ev­ery­thing. This is a book that grap­ples with suf­fer­ing, joy, death, soli­tude, com­mu­nion, cul­ture, fate, and ran­dom acts with ei­ther no reper­cus­sions or with long, rip­pling ef­fects. Above all, it is about the per­pet­ual hu­man strug­gle to un­der­stand what we can­not, and our in­sis­tence on try­ing any­way.

Fanny Moli­nari has come to China from Al­bu­querque in search of spe­cific an­swers. Her brother, Bruno, died in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent amid am­bigu­ous cir­cum­stances (at age forty-four, a year older than Fanny is), and Fanny is us­ing his travel jour­nal as a guide to his life, mov­ing to­ward the places he vis­ited and the peo­ple he met. Bruno had not told Fanny about some of the en­coun­ters he wrote about, and she fears that she knew less about her brother than she had al­ways as­sumed.

From the start, her jour­ney is weighted down by the ran­dom na­ture of death. While Fanny sits on the deck of the ship that will take her from Ja­pan to China, she watches as a young man lifts up an older woman and tosses her into the sea. The man, it turns out, did not know the woman. He had not taken his med­i­ca­tion. The mur­der is an iso­lated event, a strange “en­counter with chaos.” Fanny con­tin­ues into China, per­haps a bit shaken but oth­er­wise un­af­fected.

In Guangzhou, as she hauls around her “clumsy load of grief,” Fanny meets the first of four men who will af­fect her odyssey. Daniel, a con­fi­dent-bor­der­ing-on-ar­ro­gant English­man, charms her. They share a meal, dur­ing which she drops a Zi­ploc bag with her brother’s ashes on the ta­ble, and af­ter which Daniel van­ishes long enough for the bill to get paid.

Daniel is a schemer. He en­lists two Chi­nese men — Zhou, a taxi driver whose love of Dick­ens has made his English de­light­fully an­ti­quated, and Zhou’s friend Lui, who dreams of open­ing a night­club — in a plot to get money from for­eign­ers. Lui pre­tends to be an es­caped demon­stra­tor from Tianan­men Square, with Zhou act­ing as his trans­la­tor. The men col­lect money from their au­di­ences, claim­ing they are do­ing so for the cause of democ­racy in China.

When Daniel in­vites Fanny to one of Zhou and Lui’s gath­er­ings, she doesn’t buy the per­for­mance. Nei­ther does the fifth main char­ac­ter, Yevgo Ve­lasquez, a sixty-three-year-old cab driver vis­it­ing from San Fran­cisco. Yevgo nonethe­less trusts Zhou and asks him to take Yevgo on his own jour­ney: across thou­sands of miles of Chi­nese land­scape, to Tashkent (in present-day Uzbek­istan), the home­town Yevgo left decades ago. Liu and Daniel join the trip, and the four men head out in a rick­ety taxi whose floors are strewn with peanut shells. Their trip and Fanny’s will over­lap in­ter­mit­tently.

Lee is a mas­ter­ful travel writer, de­pict­ing with im­me­di­acy the bustling of cities and the des­o­late end­less­ness of long stretches of coun­try. There are im­ages of won­der­ful vivid­ness: lamps made of yak but­ter, a walk through a med­ley of scents of “vine­gar, veg­etable peel­ings, gar­lic, drains.” Ob­ser­va­tions are both pre­cise and wide-reach­ing, pen­sive re­flec­tions on com­mu­nist China. “What would hap­pen to China,” Fanny won­ders, “when its old peo­ple were gone — the peo­ple who had lived through its trou­bles? The men and their birds, the women and their Bud­dhism? … What would be lost when their per­se­ver­ance and suf­fer­ing were for­got­ten, the knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence in their cell struc­ture buried with them?” Else­where she con­sid­ers, “Per­haps irony was a con­cept so em­bed­ded in ev­ery­day life it didn’t re­quire com­ment: the way the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment seemed bent on prof­it­ing (that cap­i­tal­ist ac­tiv­ity) from even the small­est op­por­tu­nity, the way that ma­te­ri­al­ism flour­ished in a com­mu­nist coun­try.”

Fanny was or­phaned in high school and is un­mar­ried and with­out chil­dren. Yevgo is di­vorced and trav­el­ing to­ward a home­land where he ex­pects to learn that ev­ery­one he once knew is dead. Both are en­veloped in soli­tude, and both have suf­fered deeply. Yet they are in a coun­try where peo­ple suf­fer “on a grand scale,” where the “Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion had el­e­vated strug­gle to a kind of tor­ture.” Lee’s novel is most ef­fec­tive in its re­flec­tions on suf­fer­ing, what­ever form it may take — from in­ter­nal heartache to na­tional re­pres­sion.

The novel’s prose does not build up sus­pense or ten­sion, even in mo­ments lead­ing to fights or phys­i­cal dan­ger. The af­ter­math of ac­tion scenes hardly even oc­curs; the trav­el­ers merely con­tinue apace along their road. Lee de­fies plot con­ven­tion in a way that per­fectly fits the un­con­ven­tion­al­ity of what her novel’s char­ac­ters un­dergo. There is noth­ing pre­dictable about life, ex­cept death — and that we will in­evitably ex­pe­ri­ence mo­ments of beauty and ad­ver­sity as we move to­ward its end. — Grace La­batt

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.