Note: this is the first part of my translation of 长安大道上的骑驴美人 (Chang’an Dadao Shang de Qi Lu: Meiren) by 莫言 (Mo Yan). The next installments will follow soon, and then the whole translation will show up as one big post in the archives.
A bit of background: Mo Yan is the pen-name of Guan Moye, and a badass pen-name at that: it means “Don’t speak.” Mo is probably best-known as the author of Hong Gaoliang Jiazu, translated into English as “Red Sorghum” and the amazing Tiantang Suantai zhi Ge, also translated into English as “The Garlic Ballads.” Some of his short stories have also been translated into English in the volume “Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh!,” but as far as I know, this particular story hasn’t ever been translated in English.
The Donkey-Riding Beauty on Chang’an Road
by Mo Yan (Guan Moye)
translated by Brendan O’Kane
IT WAS THE AFTERNOON of April 1. Hou Qi squeezed out of the subway station at Xidan, looked up, and saw the sun: biggish, reddish, it was setting through the cracks between the skyscrapers. Hou Qi hadn’t been on Chang’an Road in ages – whenever he went to work, it was on the subway, passing underneath – and so he had no idea what the buildings rubbing up against the sun were called. Hou went to the bike rack and picked out his bicycle. It was old and beaten-up, like all the rest of the bikes left outside the subway station. His lock was no good either; it opened, reluctantly, only after putting up a struggle for three minutes.
Bike unlocked and in hand, Hou Qi walked forward, pushing his bike in front of him. Spotting an opening in traffic, he got on clumsily and started pedalling, planning to cross Chang’an Road with the flow of cars, when suddenly he heard a clamor coming from somewhere to the west of him, and looking over, saw —
–Maybe it’d be best to talk about work that day first. He hadn’t done any real work; when he got to the office that morning he’d heard his coworkers saying something about a solar eclipse and Comet Hale-Bopp. –Wasn’t that last year? he asked.
“You been living in a cave or something?” said an officemate.
“You just don’t pay attention to anything, do you?” said another. “It happened last year; ‘s happening again this year. Something wrong with that?”
–OK, OK, sure, he said, going on to admit that, yeah, he didn’t know anything, he was a thicko, he couldn’t keep up with the fast pace of modern living.
Satisfied with his confession, a girl wearing overalls, with a long torso and stubby legs, handed him a piece of smoked glass. “Hey, Comrade Hou’s still a good guy,” she said to the others. “No making fun of him!” A few young men protested: “We were just kidding! We kid because we love – right, Hou?”
Hou Qi agreed that this was so. A moment later, the matter of aliens came up, and he fell into a daze, listening to the conversation as if it were a radio program.
At 9, the young men yelled “It’s time!” and Hou Qi pulled out the black glass and followed the progressive youth up the winding staircase to the roof, prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of heavenly splendor, but in the end, aside from a dejected-looking sun and an even more dejected-looking old kite, they didn’t see anything at all. Everyone was disappointed, not just Hou Qi; Hale-Bopp wasn’t going to come back for another 2300 years, and the last time it had been around, not even Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of China, had been born. Not even Qin Shihuang’s grandfather had been born. Hou Qi had been thinking for a while of writing something about it, but – owing to the big disappointment – didn’t.
He ate a bowl of garlic greens and pig’s blood for lunch. A few of the boys who so loved Hou Qi pinched his nose and made him chug a cup of beer. After lunch he went back to work, and conversation turned back to eclipses and comets, until finally 5 o’clock came and he left, walked a kilometer, got to the subway station, squeezed into the train. Like a little mouse, he thought, and then remembering the old adage about knowing oneself, thought: Who am I kidding? I can’t even compare to a mouse.
The subway car was full of people, more standing than sitting. At Fuxingmen, most of them piled off, and only a few got on. By that time, about the same number stood as sat. Hou Qi grabbed a seat and sat for a few minutes, but then the subway PA said that the next stop was the last one for this line. The train came to a stop even before the announcement finished; Hou Qi got off the train with everybody else, walked ahead 100 meters, rode the escalator for 3 minutes, climbed 54 steps, looked up, and saw the sun. Seeing it made him think of the eclipse the year before, when the sun had been so intimately close to the moon.
We’ve already talked about what he did right after that – and then, Hou Qi looked over to the west and saw:
A young woman wearing a red skirt, perched on a glistening donkey, a dark donkey, an inky-black donkey, crossing the jammed road through the small spaces between cars (which were almost bumper-to-bumper), as composed and unworried as if there were nobody there at all. Behind the young woman, following closely, was a young man on horseback. The man was armored in a bright silver helmet and a breastplate so shiny that the light reflected from it was dazzling. There was a sharp-looking spike coming up from his perfectly-round helmet, and from the spike fluttered a red ribbon. His left hand held onto the horse’s reins; his right hand gripped a long wooden spear, the point of which was of course shiny as well. Beneath him was a pure white horse, a beautiful white horse, a majestic white horse, a proud white horse, almost too gorgeous, as if to make people wonder if it might really be something else, whether there might not be some truth in the old sophistry that “a white horse is not a horse.” Every movement of its porcelain-white head naturally meant a movement of its neck as well, and seeing it, Hou Qi thought of geese. The horse moved forward in quick, elegant little steps, calm and unhuried as it crossed the street, following close behind the little black donkey.
It was the after-work rush hour, and the cars were crowded together like a herd of sheep, none of them able to move quickly. So the air didn’t fill with the sound of screeching brakes, even though there was a man, a woman, a horse, and a donkey crossing the road against the light, and no cars ran into one another. Even the cabbies, who were on the whole a high-strung, easily-annoyed bunch, were on their best behavior. Nobody cursed. Nobody flashed out a knife or shouted threats. Nobody even honked. They stepped on their brakes and let the horse continue unimpeded. They rolled down their windows and stuck out their heads to look at the people crossing the road, and the animals carrying the people. Everybody wore a peaceful expression. Some were smiling. On the traffic-command stand at the middle of the intersection, a young cop stared stupidly. Her lips were silent; her hands made no movement, and all the other people there were just as still, watching quietly and seriously as the horse and the donkey, bearing the man and the woman, crossed the road.
(to be continued)