The Song of Everlasting Sorrow
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The Song of Everlasting Sorrow

A Novel of Shanghai

Wang Anyi, Michael Berry, Susan Chan Egan

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  1. 452 pagine
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eBook - ePub

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow

A Novel of Shanghai

Wang Anyi, Michael Berry, Susan Chan Egan

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The classic story of a woman in post-World War II China. "[A] complex and penetrating portrayal... that best displays [Anyi's] gifts as a novelist."— The New York Times

Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao—a girl born of the longtang, the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai's working-class neighborhoods—seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant. This fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the Anti-Rightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of "old Shanghai"—a living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication—only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth. From the violent persecution of communism to the liberalism and openness of the age of reform, this sorrowful tale of old China versus new, of perseverance in the face of adversity, is a timeless rendering of our never-ending quest for transformation and beauty.

"A beautifully constructed cyclical narrative... ingenious... As the novel builds to its tragic conclusion, the manner in which character types and events recur against the city's shifting backdrop is impossible to forget."— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"[A] literary masterpiece... The story is spellbinding, colorful, and sad; the writing is dense and thoughtful... a page-turner right up to the end."—Historical Novel Society

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Part I
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Chapter 1

LOOKED DOWN UPON from the highest point in the city, Shanghai’s longtang—her vast neighborhoods inside enclosed alleys—are a magnificent sight. The longtang are the backdrop of this city. Streets and buildings emerge around them in a series of dots and lines, like the subtle brushstrokes that bring life to the empty expanses of white paper in a traditional Chinese landscape painting. As day turns into night and the city lights up, these dots and lines begin to glimmer. However, underneath the glitter lies an immense blanket of darkness—these are the longtang of Shanghai.
The darkness looks almost to be a series of furious waves that threaten to wash away the glowing dots and lines. It has volume, whereas all those lines and dots float on the surface—they are there only to differentiate the areas of this dark mass, like punctuation marks whose job it is to break up an essay into sentences and paragraphs. The darkness is like an abyss—even a mountain falling in would be swallowed whole and sink silently to the bottom. Countless reefs lurk beneath this swelling ocean of darkness, where one false move could capsize a ship. The darkness buoys up Shanghai’s handful of illuminated lines and dots, supporting them decade after decade. Against this decades-old backdrop of darkness, the Paris of the Orient unfolds her splendor.
Today, everything looks worn out, exposing bit by bit what lies underneath. One strand at a time, the first rays of the morning sun shine through just as, one by one, the city lights go out. Everything begins from a cover of light fog, through which a horizontal ray of light crafts an outline as if drawing it out with a fine brush. First to appear are the dormer windows protruding from the rooftop tingzijian of those traditional longtang buildings, showing themselves off with a certain self-conscious delicacy; the wooden shutters are carefully delineated, the handmade rooftop tiles are arranged with precision, even the potted roses on the windowsills have been cared for painstakingly.
Next to emerge are the balconies; here articles of clothing hung out to dry the night before cling motionless like a scene out of a painting. The cement on the balustrade peels away to reveal the rusty red bricks beneath—this too looks as if painted in a picture, each brushstroke appearing clear and distinct. After that come the cracked gable walls, lined with traces of green moss that look cold and clammy to the touch. The first rays of light shining on the gable walls create a stunning picture, a gorgeous portrait, bearing just a hint of desolation, fresh and new yet not without a past.
At this moment the cement pavement of the longtang is still enveloped in fog, which lingers thick in the back alleys. But on the iron-railed balconies of the newer longtang apartments the sunlight is already striking the glass panes on the French doors, which refract the light. This stroke is a relatively sharp one, and seems to pull back the curtain that separates day from night. The sunlight finally drives away the fog, washing everything in its path with a palette of strong color. The moss turns out to be not green but a dark raven hue, the wooden window frames start to blacken, and the iron railing on the balcony becomes a rusted yellow. One can see blades of green grass growing from between the cracks in the gables, and the white pigeons turn gray as they soar up into the sky.
Shanghai’s longtang come in many different forms, each with colors and sounds of its own. Unable to decide on any one appearance, they remain fickle, sometimes looking like this, sometimes looking like that. Actually, despite their constant fluctuations, they always remain the same—the shape may shift but the spirit is unchanged. Back and forth they go, but in the end it’s the same old story, like an army of a thousand united by a single goal. Those longtang that have entryways with stone gates emanate an aura of power. They have inherited the style of Shanghai’s glorious old mansions. Sporting the facade of an official residence, they make it a point to have a grandiose entrance and high surrounding walls. But, upon entering, one discovers that the courtyard is modest and the reception area narrow—two or three steps and you are already at the wooden staircase across the room. The staircase is not curved, but leads straight up into the bedroom, where a window overlooking the street hints at romantic ardor.
The trendy longtang neighborhoods in the eastern district of Shanghai have done away with such haughty airs. They greet you with low wrought-iron gates of floral design. For them a small window overlooking a side street is not enough; they all have to have walk-out balconies, the better to enjoy the street scenery. Fragrant oleanders reach out over the courtyard walls, as if no longer able to contain their springtime passion. Deep down, however, those inside still have their guard up: the back doors are bolted shut with spring locks of German manufacture, the windows on the ground floor all have steel bars, the low front gates of wrought iron are crowned with ornamented spikes, and walls protect the courtyard on all sides. One may enter at will, but escape seems virtually impossible.
On the western side of the city, the apartment-style longtang take an even stricter approach to security. These structures are built in clusters, with doors that look as if not even an army of ten thousand could force their way inside. The walls are soundproof so that people living even in close quarters cannot hear one another, and the buildings are widely spaced so that neighbors can avoid one another. This is security of a democratic sort—trans-Atlantic style—to ensure and protect individual freedom. Here people can do whatever their hearts desire, and there is no one to stop them.
The longtang in the slums are open-air. The makeshift roofs leak in the rain, the thin plywood walls fail to keep out the wind, and the doors and windows never seem to close properly. Apartment structures are built virtually on top of one another, cheek by jowl, breathing down upon each other’s necks. Their lights are like tiny glowing peas, not very bright, but dense as a pot of pea porridge. Like a great river, these longtang have innumerable tributaries, and their countless branches resemble those of a tall tree. Crisscrossing, they form a giant web. On the surface they appear entirely exposed, but in reality they conceal a complex inner soul that remains mysterious, unfathomable.
As dusk approaches, flocks of pigeons hover about the Shanghai skyline in search of their nests. The rooftop ridges rise and fall, extending into the distance; viewed from the side, they form an endless mountain range, and from the front, a series of vertical summits. Viewed from the highest peak, they merge into one boundless vista that looks the same from all directions. Like water flowing aimlessly, they seem to creep into every crevice and crack, but upon closer inspection they fall into an orderly pattern. At once dense and wide-ranging, they resemble rye fields where the farmers, having scattered their seeds, are now harvesting a rich crop. Then again, they are a little like a pristine forest, living and dying according to its own cycle. Altogether they make for a scene of the utmost beauty and splendor.
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The longtang of Shanghai exude a sensuality like the intimacy of flesh on flesh—cool and warm, tangible and knowable, a little self-centered. The grease-stained rear kitchen window is where the amah gossips. Beside the window is the back door; from this the eldest daughter goes out to school and holds her secret rendezvous with her boyfriend. The front door, reserved for distinguished guests, opens only on important occasions. On each side of the door hang couplets announcing marriages, funerals, and other family events. The door seems always to be in a state of uncontrollable, even garrulous, excitement. Echoes of secret whispers linger around the flat roof, the balcony, and the windows. At night, the sounds of rapping on the doors rise and fall in the darkness.
To return to the highest point in the city and look down on it from another angle: clothes hanging out to dry on the cluttered bamboo poles hint at the private lives and loves that lie hidden beneath. In the garden, potted balsams, ghost flowers, scallions, and garlic also breathe the faint air of a secret affair. The empty pigeon cage up on the roof is an empty heart. Broken roof tiles lying in disarray are symbols of the body and soul. Some of the gullylike alleys are lined with cement, others with cobblestone. The cement alleys make you feel cut off, while the cobblestone alleys give the sensation of a fleshy hand. Footsteps sound different in these two types of longtang. In the former the sound is crisp and bright, but in the latter it is something that you absorb and keep inside. The former is a collection of polite pleasantries, the latter of words spoken from the bottom of one’s heart. Neither is like an official document; both belong to the necessary language of the everyday.
The back alleys of Shanghai try even harder to work their way into people’s hearts. The pavement is covered with a layer of cracks. Gutters overflow; floating in the discolored water are fish scales and rotten vegetable leaves, as well as the greasy lampblack from the stovetop. It is dirty and grimy, impure, here. Here the most private secrets are exposed, and not always in the most conventional fashion. Because of this a pall hangs over these back alleys. The sunlight does not shine through until three o’clock in the afternoon and before long the sun begins to set in the west. But this little bit of sunlight envelops the back alleys in a blanket of warm color. The walls turn a brilliant yellow, highlighting the unevenness of the rough whetstone and giving it the texture of coarse sand. The windows also turn a golden yellow, but they are scratched and stained. By now the sun has been shining down for a long time and is beginning to show signs of fatigue. Summoning up the last vestiges of radiance from the depths, the lingering rays of sunlight flicker with a sticky thickness of built-up residue, rather dirty. As twilight encroaches, flocks of pigeons soar overhead, dust motes drift, and stray cats wander in and out of sight. This is a feeling that, having penetrated the flesh, goes beyond closeness. One begins to weary of it. It breeds a secret fear, but hidden within that fear is an excitement that gnaws down to the bone.
What moves you about the longtang of Shanghai stems from the most mundane scenes: not the surging rush of clouds and rain, but something steadily accumulated over time. It is the excitement of cooking smoke and human vitality. Something is flowing through the longtang that is unpredictable yet entirely rational, small, not large, and trivial—but then even a castle can be made out of sand. It has nothing to do with things like “history,” not even “unofficial history”: we can only call it gossip.
Gossip is yet another landscape in the Shanghai longtang—you can almost see it as it sneaks out through the rear windows and the back doors. What emerges from the front doors and balconies is a bit more proper—but it is still gossip. These rumors may not necessarily qualify as history, but they carry with them the shadows of time. There is order in their progression, which follows the law of preordained consequences. These rumors cling to the skin and stick to the flesh; they are not cold or stiff, like a pile of musty old books. Though marred by untruths, these are falsehoods that have feeling.
When the city’s streetlights are ablaze, its longtang remain in darkness, save the lonely street lamps hanging on the alley corners. The lamps, enclosed in crude frames of rusty iron covered with dust, emit a murky yellow glow. On the ground, a shroud of thick mist forms and begins to spread out—this is the time when rumors and gossip start to brew. It is a gloomy hour, when nothing is clear, yet it is enough to break the heart. Pigeons coo in their cages, talking their language of secret whispers. The streetlights shine with a prim and proper light, but as soon as that light streams into the longtang alleys, it is overwhelmed by darkness. The kind of gossip exchanged in the front rooms and adjoining wings belongs to the old school and smacks faintly of potpourri. The gossip in the rooftop tingzijian and staircases is new school and smells of mothballs. But, old school or new, gossip is always told in earnest—you could even say it is told in the spirit of truth.
This is like scooping water with one’s hands: even though you might lose half the water along the way, with enough persistence you can still fill up a pond. Or like the swallow that, though she may drop half the earth and twigs she is carrying in her beak, can still build a nest—there is no need for laziness or trickery. The longtang of Shanghai are an unbearable sight. The patches of green moss growing in the shade are, in truth, like scars growing over a wound; it takes time for the wound to heal. It is because the moss lacks a proper place that it grows in the shade and shadows—years go by and it never sees the sun. Now ivy grows out in the open, but it serves as Time’s curtain and always has something to hide. The pigeons gaze down at the outstretching billows of roof tiles as they take to the air, and their hearts are stabbed with pain. Coming up over the longtang rooftops, the sun shoots out its belabored rays—a majestic sight pieced together from countless minute fragments, an immense power born of immeasurable patience.


Gossip always carries with it an exhalation of gloom. This murky air sometimes smells like lavender in a bedroom, sometimes like mothballs, and at other times like a kitchen chopping block. It does not remind you of the smell of tobacco plugs or cigars, nor is it even faintly reminiscent of the smell of insecticides like Lindane or Dichlorvos. It is not a strong masculine scent, but a soft feminine one—the scent of a woman. It combines the smell of the bedroom and the kitchen, the smell of cosmetics and cooking oil, mixed in with a bit of sweat. Gossip is always trailed by clouds and a screen of mist. Shadowy and indistinct, it is a fogged-up window—a windowpane covered with a layer of dust. Shanghai has as many rumors as longtang: too many to be counted, too many to be told.
There is something infectious about gossip; it can transform an official biography into a collection of dubious tales, so that truth becomes indistinguishable from gossip. In the world of rumor, fact cannot be separated from fiction; there is truth within lies, and lies within the truth. That gossip should put on an absurd face is unavoidable; this absurdity is the incredulity born of girlish inexperience, and is at least in part an illusion. In places like the longtang, it travels from back door to back door, and in the blink of an eye the whole world knows all. Gossip is like the silent electrical waves crisscrossing in the air above the city, like formless clouds that enshroud the whole city, slowly brewing into a shower, intermixing right and wrong. The rain comes down not in a torrent but as a hazy springtime drizzle. Although not violent, it drenches the air with an inescapable humidity. Never underestimate these rumors: soft and fine as these raindrops may be, you will never struggle free of them.
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Every longtang in Shanghai is steeped in an atmosphere of gossip, where right and wrong get twisted and confused. In the elegant apartment-style longtang on the west side of town, this atmosphere is free of clouds, refreshing and transparent as a bright autumn day. Moving down among the modern-style longtang neighborhoods, the atmosphere becomes a bit more turgid and turbulent, blowing to and fro like the wind. Lower down still is the fractious atmosphere of the old-style longtang neighborhoods with the stone gates. Here the wind has died, replaced by the vapor of a humid day. By the time one gets to where the slum-dwellers live, all is enveloped in mist—not the roseate mists of dawn, but the thick fog that comes before a torrential downpour, when you cannot see your hand in front of your face.
But regardless of the type of longtang, this atmosphere penetrates everywhere. You could say that it is the genius loci of Shanghai’s alleys. If the longtang of Shanghai could speak, they would undoubtedly speak in rumors. They are the thoughts of Shanghai’s longtang, disseminating themselves through day and night. If the longtang of Shanghai could dream, that dream would be gossip.
Gossip is base. With this vulgar heart, it cannot help wallowing in self-degradation. It is like sewer water, used, contaminated. There is nothing aboveboard about it, nothing straight and narrow; it can only whisper secrets behind people’s backs. It feels no sense of responsibility, never takes the blame for the outcome—whatever that outcome may be. Because of this, gossip has learned to do as it pleases, running wild like a flood out of control. It never bothers to think things over—and no one ever bothers to think it over. It is a bit like verbal garbage, but then again one can occasionally find small treasures in the garbage. Gossip is made up of fragments discarded from serious conversations, like the shriveled outer leaves of vegetables, or grains of sand in a bag of rice. These bits and pieces have faces that are not quite decent; always up to something, they are spoiled merchandise. They are actually made from the crudest materials. However, even the girls in Shanghai’s west-end apartments feel compelled to stockpile some of this lowly stuff, because buried deep inside this shamefully base material is where one can find a few genuine articles. These articles lie outside the parameters of what is dignified; their nature is such that no one dares speak of them aloud—and so they are taken and molded into gossip.
If gossip has a positive side, it is the part of it that is genuine. The genuine, however, has a false appearance; this is what is known as “making truth out of falsehood, fact from fiction”—it is always dishing itself up in a new form, making a feint to the east while attacking from the west. This truth is what gives you the courage to go out into the world and not fear losing face, or the courage to become a ghost—to go against prevailing opinions. But there is a kind of sorrow that comes with this courage—the sorrow that comes from being thwarted, from being kept from doing what one wishes. However, there is a certain vital energy in this sorrow, because even in the midst of it one’s heart surges with high-flying ambition; in fact, it is because of these surging ambitions that one feels such bafflement and loss. This sorrow is not refined like Tang dynasty poetry and Song dynasty lyrics, but belongs to the world of vulgar grievances aired out in the streets. One can feel the weight of this sorrow as it sinks to the bottom. It has nothing of the airy-fairy—the wind, flowers, snow, and the moon dancing on the water—it is the sediment that accumulates at the bottom. Gossip always sinks to the lowest place. There is no need to go looking for it, it is already there—and it will always be there. It cannot be purified by fire or washed clean with water. It has the tenacity for holding onto life that keeps the muscles intact when the bones are shattered, that enables one to swallow the teeth broken in one’s mouth—a brazen-faced tenacity.
Gossip cannot help but be swashbuckling and sensational. It travels in the company of monsters and goblins; rising with the wind, its elusive tail can never be caught. Only in gossip can the true heart of this city be found. No matter how gorgeous and splendid the city may look on the outside, its heart is vulgar. That heart is born of gossip, and gossip is born of the Shanghai longtang. Magnificent tales of the Far East can be heard all over this Paris of the Orient; but peel away the outer shell and you will discover that gossip lies at its core. Like the center of a pearl—which is actually a rough grain of sand—coarse sand is the material of which gossip is made.
Gossip always muddles the senses. Starting with inconsequential things, it winds up trying to rewrite history. Like woodworm, it slowly chews up the books and records, eating away magnificent buildings like an army of termites. Its methods are chaotic, without rhyme, reason, or logic. It goes wherever it wants, swaggering like a hooligan, and wastes no time on long-winded theories, nor does it go into too much detail. It simply spreads across the city, launching surprise attacks; by the time you turn around to see what sneaked up on you from behind, it has already gone without a trace. It leaves in its wake a chain of injustices with no one to take the blame and a string of scores with no one to settle with. It makes no big, sudden movements but quietly works away without stopping. In the end, “many a little makes a lot,” and trickling water flows into a great river. This is what is meant by the saying, “Rumors rise in swarms”; they indeed drone and buzz like a nest of hornets. A bit contemptible, maybe, but they are also conscientio...

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