Blending elements of the surreal with carefully observed details of life in present-day Beijing, Jonathan Tel’s short stories offer a rich and highly entertaining guide to the city and its many and varied inhabitants–from a modern-day Monkey King to an equally contemporary indentured servant, from a boy tasting his first cotton candy to a Ming Dynasty princess posting her first online profile.
The stories offer a vicarious tour through modern Beijing and a long view of Chinese history. The reader flies through the book, chuckling over one character’s trickery, moved by another’s plight, and horrified at another’s unwitting actions, until reaching the culminating novella, which brings the whole book and its take on China back to the Western reader with a stunning immediacy.
Americans’ newly minted fascination with China, stoked by the 2008 Olympics, can find both intellectual and artistic satisfaction in this collection.
Tel (Freud's Alphabet) spins a collection of dreamlike short stories out of the lives of Beijing's residents, from crime-fighting, gorilla-costumed messengers to thieves, buskers and composers. The stories form an impression of Beijing on the eve of the 2008 Olympics, weaving in the culture, history and present reality of a city undergoing rapid change. In "The Book of Auspicious and Inauspicious Dreams," a modern young couple attempts to return the souvenirs of a woman's bourgeois past, hidden during the Cultural Revolution, which they discover while renovating their apartment. A musician in "Shadow of Candles Flickering Red" remembers picking up the ehru, a traditional Chinese instrument, while being "re-educated" in the Chinese countryside. In "The Most Beautiful Woman in China," some of these characters reappear in a tale that combines everything from mythological traditions to the sayings of Deng Xiaoping to create a humming, ethereal image of the city and its culture. The collection, part W.G. Sebald and part Italo Calvino, provides a glimpse for the Western reader into the complicated, vibrant world of Beijing.