The Postman


Penguin Specials are a series of short books published by Penguin in Australia. Though the series has largely published non-fiction, it has previously included stories by Chinese writers such as Yan Lianke (Marrow) and Ge Fei (Flock of Brown Birds). Among its most recent projects are five novellas by younger Chinese writers, previously unpublished in English, from the Zhejiang province, published in association with the Zhejiang Writers’ Association. The first to be available here is Bi Yu’s The Postman, translated by Jesse Field.

The Postman is set in Shanghai during the years of the Second World War, beginning in 1936. (1937 marked the Japanese invasion of China, and for some the beginning of the Second World War. The Japanese seized control of major cities like Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai but could not subdue the entire country. The fighting continued throughout the war and only ended with Japan’s surrender in 1945. It was immediately followed by the Chinese Civil war which lasted until the Communist victory in mainland China in 1949). The story opens with the death of Xu Delin, a postman, who has been shot in the back of the head. Even more strangely, he was tortured before he died:

“…the funeral masters who cleaned his body had found both his testicles smashed and left dangling in his crotch like an unripe persimmon. Nine of his ten toes were missing toenails.”

It soon transpires that Xu Delin’s nocturnal excursions were neither due to his conversion to Catholicism (as he claimed) nor an affair (as his wife suspected) but because he was acting as a courier for a Chinese intelligence network. His son, Zhongliang, abandoning hope of continuing his education and gaining a job with a Western bank, decides to take his father’s place, both as a postman and a courier – despite the fact that a mysterious Mr Pan offers to continue to pay his tuition fees (he spends it instead on the bicycle he needs to work for the post office). It is on his first mission that we are introduced to Su Lina:

“She had clearly just woken up from an afternoon nap. Her hair was tousled and she wore a sleeveless chiffon nightdress…Zhongliang handed her the letter. She accepted it with a glance, raised her eyes to look again at Zhingliang, then shut the door, light but final. Still her expression had left a deep impression on him – languid, yet intense.”

This meeting allows Bi Yu to shift the focus to Su Lina as she receives her instructions from Mr Pan. Her role is as a ‘femme fatale’, winning the confidence of important men. Pan tells her to be sure to follow her husband to Nanjing; “Remember your duty,” Mr Pan tells her.

The intelligence network works on a need-to-know basis which also extends to the reader. At one point Zhou San, Zhangliang’s superior at the post office (and in the network) tells him, “If I could explain it clearly, it wouldn’t be underground work.” When he brings a young woman, Xiufen, to live with Zhangliang all he can tell him is, “she’s a person with a tragic past.” Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the discovery near the end that someone that one character thinks they have been extracting information from has been deliberately giving them the information. At the same time, we have very little insight into the interior lives of the characters, while their exterior lives are, by nature of their profession, guarded. This can making reading a rather flat experience at times: moments of great tension are often dealt with superficially, such as when the stationmaster, after the Japanese have occupied Shanghai, tells Zhangliang he should resign before he is caught:

“Zhangliang did not say a word and his face began to go pale, but he still managed to smile and raise his glass, even if the wine had no taste at all for him.”

Such restraint can be effective but, in the course of the novella, can also make the reader feel excluded, particularly as Bi Yu is always quick to move onto the next scene.

Of course, this is necessary when the story is packed with incident across only 120 pages, but the narrative joins can be clumsy at times. After a moving scene were Xiufen, about to embark on a particularly dangerous mission, tells Zhangliang to leave Shangahi and declares she will find him “as long as you’re alive” which ends:

“Then she lifted her face and gazed at the snowflakes swirling in the sky.”

Bi Yu begins the next paragraph:

“In fact, Xiufen did not know what her next job was,” immediately dissipating both the beauty and emotion of the previous scene.

Despite this, The Postman has a lot to recommend it. Its portrayal of spying at the time is both convincingly realistic, conveying, from the opening death, the dangers involved. Its refusal to give the reader the wider picture, while frustrating at times, gives an understanding of the isolating nature of the work, and its reliance on trust in a world where trust might be fatal. The final section, as the Communist army takes control of Shanghai, also indicates the confusion of the time – when Zhangliang returns to his home in Shanghai to find it occupied, he is told:

“Haven’t you heard?… Nobody knows who the word belongs to anymore.”

With four other titles in the series, it is certainly worth investigating further.

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8 Responses to “The Postman”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I hadn’t heard of this series before, so thanks for the tip. You do seem to have a knack for ferreting out the most interesting selection of books!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Like Jacqui, I’d missed this series too, and it *does* sound interesting – even if this one has flaws!

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Yes, the flaws sound like they do weaken the book, but it’s short and unusual. A maybe from me. How did you find these?

    • 1streading Says:

      I’d come across the earlier specials with writers I’d heard of so I thought I’d give this one a shot. (I also like the look and shape of them as well!)

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I read this in August. You captured it extremely well, both its many strengths and also that issue with the lack of interiority, which is perhaps a product of structure and subject but still weakens it a bit. I still enjoyed it though, enough so that I’ve bought all the others in the same series.

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