Posts Tagged ‘flock of brown birds’

Flock of Brown Birds

December 2, 2017

Ge Fie is a Chinese writer associated with the avant-garde which blossomed during the 1980s who has only recently been translated into English. Last year, at the same time as NYRB published his novel The Invisibility Cloak, Penguin, as part of its China Specials series, delivered a translation of Flock of Brown Birds by Poppy Toland, a novella originally published in 1987. In a preface, Ge comments on the experimental nature of the work:

“Whenever anyone complained to me about how difficult it was to understand, I would give the joking response, ‘I don’t blame you. I’m not sure I understand it either.’”

While it may be difficult to pin down the meaning of Ge’s work, that is not to say it is difficult to read: it could be argued that the dreamlike atmosphere of the story allows it to float through the reader’s mind with ease. The narrator is a writer who lives an isolated existence working on a novel “akin to the revelations of St John” which he plans to dedicate to his wife who died on the day of their wedding. The writer’s life, like that of a dream, has an intense but inconsistent relationship with time and memory. The birds of the title are all that reminds him of the passing of the seasons:

“…depending on the direction the birds are flying (north or south) I can make out vague predictions about the progress of time… these migrating birds symbolise the seasons.”

When he receives his first visitor, a woman named Qi carrying an art portfolio, she “didn’t greet me like a stranger, but with the warmth and kindness of a wife.” She claims to have visited him only three months before but he does not remember her: “Your novel seems to have completely destroyed your memory.” Only under repeated questioning does he find:

“The disintegrated threads of my memory fused together, as if with strange glue. I recalled the past with anxiety.”

He begins to recount the story of his relationship with a woman wearing chestnut boots. Initially she is someone he sees in the street, bending down to pick up a boot nail. “I’m not convinced that was the end of it,” Qi tells him, and he continues, describing how he followed the woman until she disappeared over a bridge which did not reach the other side of the river:

“I could no longer see the grey outline of the bridge extending out in front to of me. I groped for the bridge’s iron chain and used it to guide me forwards, but then suddenly I could feel there was no more chain either.”

The telling of the story becomes very much like the writing of a novel, the broken bridge suggesting what happens next is out of reach. Later the narrator will compare his memory to the bridge:

“My memory was a rusty chain disintegrating link by link into dust.”

The story does continue under Qi’s prompting, however, when he sees the woman with her husband seven or eight years later, though she is not convinced she is the same woman. “I haven’t been to the city since I was ten,” she tells him. For all the characters memory is like a tide washing in and out; we might even think at times they are creating the memories others feel they should have.

Eventually the woman in chestnut boots will become the woman whom the narrator marries, only to die on their wedding day. At one point Qi tells him:

“Your stories are circular. The plot development is basically repetition.”

(Note she makes no distinction between ‘story’ and ‘memory’). The conclusion of his story about the woman with chestnut boots returns us to the novella’s opening lines regarding dedicating his book to his wife. Similarly, the novella itself ends with the return of Qi, though on this occasion it is the narrator who recognises her only to be told, “My name isn’t Qui, I’m a passerby.” The art portfolio, which, when the narrator first saw her was described as “a large folder, which looked like an art portfolio, or something like a mirror” is now a mirror, as if that earlier thought had created this new reality.

Ge has said that his writing “has two main preoccupations: first, a re-examination of history and secondly, a re-analysis of reality.” In Flock of Brown Birds, the small absences and alterations in our memories (with which we create history and interpret reality) are not only magnified but inconsistent. The narrator himself seems to live outwith time: the seasons he is only reminded of by the birds passing are, in contrast, fiercely present in his story (each section of which takes place in a different season). Ge’s probing of our relationship with reality in this brief tale may be gentle but it’s nonetheless insistent, revealing an exciting and unsettling new voice (for us) from China.

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