原文：Martin Booth, Gweilo (2004)
This essay by Hong Kong writer 洪麗芳 Charis Hung Lai-fong celebrates a wonderful and forward-thinking independent bookshop run by Stephanie Chung in Sai Kung. It is called 神話書店 in Chinese, or Mythology Books, but its official English name is Dionysus Books. You can find it at G/F, 17 Sai Kung Tai Street [西貢大街17號地下]. You can visit their Instagram site here.
This essay as first published in the fourteenth issue of Cantonese-language magazine, 《迴響》 Resonate, in August 2021. You can visit their website here, and their Facebook page here for more information about writing in Cantonese.
You can find more writing by Charis Hung on Medium.
When I’d made the long-drawn out journey (this is no joke — I live in the remote north-western New Territories and the round trip takes me more than four hours) to Mythology Books in Sai Kung, I found myself standing in front of a rather unobtrusive door-way no bigger than a large window-frame which I could have easily missed and walked on past. I was momentarily assailed by a feeling of uneasiness: don’t tell I was going to leave here with nothing but disappointment? After I’d plucked up the courage to slide open the door, the Chinese expression 別有洞天 (bit yau dung tin, meaning “a hidden but beautiful spot”) written in large characters flashed through my mind. As it turned out, it was actually really roomy inside, and the décor was very stylish. The store taught me two things: that you cannot judge a book by its cover and that you can’t appraise a bookstore from its external appearance!
A “Mythology” Suited to Hong Kong
According to Stephanie, the owner of the store, it was the English name for her shop — Dionysus Books — that she thought of first (Dionysus is the God of Wine in Greek mythology). It was only later that she decided on the Chinese name San Wa (san wa means “mythology” in Cantonese). When, out of curiosity, I asked her if she was a keen on mythology, she told me that she felt that the God of Wine was very applicable to Hong Kong in its current state. This God of Wine was of mixed parentage — half human, half divine — which made it a spirit at the same time both orthodox and sacrilegious. Sometime, he would bring happiness to humanity, while at other times, misery. Nevertheless, under the influence of the God of Wine, people could break free from reality and enter a frenzied realm in which they could finally overcome their fears. On the subject of myths, Stephanie believes that they are a timely reminder: “Owing to the advances in science and technology, we tend to forget that we can’t necessarily explain everything. But does that mean that something is non-existent, just because it lies beyond our understanding? My sense is that science and technology have reached the point where they have become overly dominant.” It is for this reason that Mythology Books has opted not to have a Facebook page. Instead, it uses MeWe in order to resist a state of affairs in which one person alone has all the say. Myths can remind us of just how insignificant we are, and so make us humbler. Stephanie also mentioned another aspect of myths: they can be exploited by governments as tools for the building of nationalisms, taking historical myths and turning them into elements to justify their rule over the people as well as the establishment of collective values. “It’s just like a certain country we know, always going on about how many thousands of years of history it has . . .” It is Stephanie’s hope that the existence of Mythology Books will serve both as encouragement and as an awakening.
From Hong Kong Girl to Bookstore Boss
Stephanie does not have a background in the cultural circles. Nor does she have any connection with the publishing industry. Before she opened her bookstore, she had never previously had anything to do with this line of work. So why did she finally decide to go down the path of the book trade? It was all because of her deep sense of the power of books. At a leisurely pace, she began telling me her own story. “Ever since I was a little girl, I have always loved to read, but when it came to choosing which subjects to study at high school, I abandoned what I was interested in and choose Business out of practical considerations. During my time at university, I devoted even less time general reading. After graduation, I worked 9 to 5 for several years at a desk job, but felt very unhappy the whole time. There was such a lot of pressure. As a result, when it came to holidays, I would go on a spending-spree as a way of getting my own back, dressing up and buying things by the truckload — your typical Hong Kong girl. One day, I suddenly had this urge to start reading again, and so began re-reading a book I had once enjoyed so much, Dream of the Red Chamber. I realized that Jia Baoyu’s not wanting to sit the exams for the sake of wealth and glory was a rebellion against the establishment, and so I really got a lot out of the story. I read one book after another, and every day when I went to work all I really wanted to do was get back to my reading. Finally, I made up my mind to quit my job and have a go at doing something I really wanted to do.” After undergoing the “baptism” of 2019, Stephanie saw with even greater clarity just how important books can be. In her view, books can help people to think, containing an unlimited number of solutions and so can provide us with outlooks as well as guidance.
“When we read a history book, we can remove ourselves a little bit, and not get so completely wrapped up in what happens to be going on at that particular moment. Our moods are no longer so grey and disheartened, and our horizons can broaden out.” Having been thus enlightened by books, Stephanie finally became the boss of a bookstore in 2021, a store which offers — based on the above-mentioned reasons — mainly books in the areas of history, literature and the social sciences.
When, out of curiosity, I asked her if she was a keen on mythology, she told me that she felt that the God of Wine was very applicable to Hong Kong in its current state. This God of Wine was of mixed parentage — half human, half divine — which made it a spirit at the same time both orthodox and sacrilegious. Sometime, he would bring happiness to humanity, while at other times, misery. Nevertheless, under the influence of the God of Wine, people could break free from reality and enter a frenzied realm in which they could finally overcome their fears.
A Bookstore Imbued to the Full with Environmental Thinking
The book-shelves and décor items found in Mythology Books are things that they have brought from home or that other people have given to them, making it quite unconventional in comparison to many other places where the furnishings are all brand-new. Stephanie told me that she once helped a Sai Kung district councillor run for election and so got to know many friends who shared her views and aspirations. In addition, when she opened the shop, quite a number of local people in the neighbourhood came and gave her a hand. The clock and the sewing machine (it now serves as a reading desk) in the corner to the right of the main entrance are over a hundred years old. And before it became a bookshop, this was a general store run by the grandmother of Stephanie’s husband on his father’s side. The store’s old sign-board still hangs on the wall — 金利源 Kam Lee Yuen (meaning “Source of Fortune and Advantage”) — giving a real sense of carrying on a family tradition. A certain amount of seating has been set aside in the shop for readers to take a rest and browse, making it extremely cosy. Stephanie comments that things don’t have to be new for them to be good, it being so very easy to find second-hand furniture in Hong Kong. Looking after the environment is actually not as hard as you might imagine it to be.
The Diversity of Independent Bookstores
Stephanie shared with me something of her experiences involving making the bookstore available to various local organizations as a venue for events every now and then. It is her hope that — given its lack of available venues — Mythology Books can provide a space in which people with similar values can come together and coalesce. Such people may also have links with other small business operating in Sai Kung, so they can give one another mutual support, possibly leading to further co-operation. Laughing, Stephanie said to me: “Actually, before 2019, we weren’t at all like this. For many Sai Kung people back then, Sai Kung was just the place where you slept, and we were not really very interested about what was going on in the district. From Monday to Friday, we would all go off to work, while on our days off we would either head out very early in the morning and return late at night, or we would spend the whole time tucked up at home just to avoid all the visitors from elsewhere. But nowadays, people have really integrated into their district and, almost without realizing it, now have another very close connection in their lives.” This is probably true for many people in Hong Kong. It is hoped that in future, bookstores will go on organizing reading groups and, if this remains possible, they could also arrange film screenings or invite writers to come and give a talk, with bookshops functioning as a collective space. As Stephanie mentioned, one advantage independent bookstores have over traditional ones is that their operations can be more diverse, not just selling books but also engaging in a range of other activities, bringing out more — and more precious — voices and creating different kinds of influences.
The Book Trade Will Not Decline
Stephanie remarked that when she first decided to open a bookstore, a lot of people weren’t too keen on the idea — only her husband supported her. She herself, however, was quite optimistic: “I wasn’t too worried. I always thought that as the situation grew worse in Hong Kong, more people would want to read. It really is the case that more young people are going to bookshops, hoping to find answers in a book.” Stephanie went on to add that, although there is plenty of information on the internet, it tends to be too fragmentary, giving books a reason to exist, a reason now even more important than ever. I asked her about whether she had any concerns regarding a political investigation (as I was writing this piece, the police had just arrested five people from the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists for publishing the “Sheep Village” series of illustrated children’s books). Stephanie replied that she couldn’t think that far ahead, and that the books in her shop would remain on the shelves — they hadn’t been banned, so why would there be any problem? “I don’t want to carry out my own self-investigation,” she said, and throughout our conversation you could sense her passionate conviction, not the fiery kind but a sort of ardour that still believes that it is possible to change some things in the world. At the same time — just like many other bookstore owners I have interviewed in the past — Stephanie believes that working in the book trade is something permeated with love rather than competitiveness. “We all give publicity to one another, and we all help each other out. Quite a number of bookstore owners were willing to give me a lot of practical advice — me, a complete beginner. Even the distributors were more than willing to spend time with me, answering my questions.”
The Great Leap Forward — 大躍進 in Chinese — refers to the second Five Year Plan for the years 1958 to 1962. It was an attempt to rapidly transform the People’s Republic into an ideal communist society. In effect, it led to massive starvation due to food shortages, with millions of people dying from the simple lack of something to eat.
This kind of blind, accelerated rejection of the land in the name of “improvement” seems to lie at the heart of this poem by Tomas Tranströmer, first published in the collection Mörkerseende (1970). What he calls in the third line det stora språnget must be, I think, a Swedish translation for the Maoist term. And — without trying to limit the possibilities of the poem too neatly — the reference at the end of the text to begravningsplats = “burial place” hints at the destruction and famine associated with the ill-fated Chinese campaign.
But is Sweden (or anywhere else, for that matter) really so different? There is, for me, an echo of this insane leap-mentality in a passage from the book Författarmiljöer i Stockholm by Ulla Montan and Ludvig Rassmusson:
När Stockholm under förra seklet blev storstad, offrades naturen. Det hade inte behövt gå så, det var inte nödvändigt — i Paris, som var den stora förebilden, anlade man parker och planterade träd längs boulevarderna. Men i Stockholm var man nyförälskad i stadsaktigheten. Alla dessa inflyttade som lämnat landsbygden bakom sig, skämdes för de knotiga björkarna, de magra rönnarna, vedbodarna, utedassen, Kronblom ock leran. De ville ha modernitet och stadsaktighet. (p.52).
When Stockholm became a big city over the course of the previous century, nature was sacrificed. It did not have to be that way; it was not at all necessary. In Paris — which served as the major prototype — parks were laid out and trees planted along the boulevards. But in Stockholm people had become infatuated with the big city lifestyle. All those who moved to the city left the countryside behind, ashamed of scraggy birch trees, skinny rowans, woodsheds, earth-closets, low-brow comic-strips and all that mud. They wanted modernity and a life in the metropolis.
Two kinds of vocabulary dominate this short poem: a construction lexicon intertwined with agricultural terms. The organic growth of the soil is mimicked by a constructive pseudo-flourishing: earth-coloured men pop up out of the ground like seedlings. Farm-animals seem to haunt the poem. We are reminded of them by the cranes that wish to spring like gambolling lambs; by the sound of bells; by the concrete pipes, thirsty in their own way, “lapping” at the light; and by the repurposed lagårdar or “cow-sheds”. But ultimately, the landscape is a space-age, lunar one, devoid of organic growth, a deathly site populated everywhere by föremål [objects] rather than subjects. The search for profit at the expense of the magical fertility of the soil has betrayed us.
Män i överdragskläder med samma färg som marken kommer upp ur ett dike.
Det är ett övergångsområde, dödläge, varken stad eller land.
Byggnadskranarna vid horisonten vill ta det stora språnget men klockorna vill inte.
Kringkastade cementrör lapar ljuset med torra tungor.
Bilplåtverkstäder inrymda i före detta lagårdar.
Stenarna kastar skuggorna skarpt som föremål på månytan.
Och de platserna bara växer.
Som det man köpte för Judas’ pengar: ”Krukmakaråkern till begravninsplats för främlingar.”
Men in overalls the same colour as the ground sprout up out of a trench.
This is an in-between zone, dead-heat, neither city nor country.
Construction cranes along the horizon want to make the Great Leap Forward, but bells hang back.
Dotted across the landscape, concrete pipes lick light with parched tongues.
Crash-repair garages housed in what used to be cow-sheds.
The stones cast their shadows sharply like objects on the surface of the moon.
And such places are growing.
Reminiscent of “the Potter’s Field” they bought with Judas’ silver “as a burial place for strangers”.
Back in the 1970s, when Abba’s music was beginning to spread all over the world, I had a Swedish pen-friend who would send me cassettes (an immortal invention!) of the real Swedish pop-music, in Swedish. I don’t recall the names of many of the singers and groups from that time, but there was Factory, Anders F. Rōnnblom and, of course, there was the frequently irresistible Gyllene Tider.
To tell you the truth, I’ve never been much of a rock’n’roll fan. Even when it comes to classical music, I always prefer the slow, quieter, often melancholic pieces. So, while I was happy to listen to many of the songs put out by GT, it was the uncharacteristically gentle “Guld” (1979) that has stayed in my heart all that time.
I suppose some degree of hypocrisy is inevitable when a highly successful and popular band writes a song explicitly questioning the collective obsession with wealth. And yet, let us suppose that, for the three minutes of this song, at least, that questioning was realized in musical form with a wonderful depth of feeling.
You can listen to it here.
Guldet det glimmar,
Bedårar och bränner
Man vrider och man vänder
För att få komma i dess glans
Man jobbar och man sliter
Man vill så gärna leva
Och ta vara på sin chans
Man läser på läxan
Guld ger ingen ingenting
Guldet det glimmar,
Lockar och förhånar
Man trampar och man trånar
För att få komma i dess glans
Gold: it glitters,
Stupefies and burns.
We twist and we turn
Just to come into the presence of its shine
The shine of wealth
We work and slave away
For endless hours
We want so much to endure
And to make the best of our chances
The shine of wealth
The shine of wealth
In school we read in books
That gold gives nothing, nothing
Gold: it glitters,
Tempts and scorns
We trudge and we pine
Just to come into the presence of its shine
The shine of wealth
The shine of wealth
The shine of wealth
The shine of wealth
It has been a night of passionate love-making. Next morning, the speaker in this short poem thinks teasingly: Sinä olet minulle hiukan uskoton = You are a little unfaithful to me. She/he lies there awake, reading in the lover’s look a hint of doubt about the depths of their feelings for one another. A need for reassurance — in words — appears to be necessary . . .
This is the unspoken question runs through the heart of this poem: Do you really love me? Of course, a simple yes or no is not enough — it’s not just what answer you give but the degree of conviction you are capable of conveying. In this sense, Immonen’s poem is not just about love. It’s also about poetry. In poetry, too, it’s not just a matter of making sense but of indicating heartfeltness. Once again, Immonen demonstrates that she is equal to the task.
Within the poem itself, the speaker provides no satisfactory answer. The body has spoken, and that should be enough. But the lover’s doubts within the situation will be answered “outside” when he/she comes cross a copy of the poem, left casually in a place where it is sure to be noticed, a candid declaration in the guise of a feigned reproach.
The language of the poem is beautifully simple, the only difficulty being the word levänneenä, a part participle derived from the verb levätä, meaning “to rest, to have a rest, to repose”. Finnish past participles have both singular and plural forms (levännyt/levänneet); interestingly, the stem form is based on the plural levännee-, which can then take case endings like any other noun or adjective. Fred Karlsson gives an unforgettable example of the part participle used with case-endings in his Finsk grammatik:
Pommin löytäneelle koiralle anettiin mitali = A medal was given to the dog which found the bomb. (198)
The case in this instance is the essive, expressed by the ending –nä. The wonderous Arthur H. Whitney outlines three uses of the essive, the most relevant for this instance being “the state or temporary character of something or someone” (Finnish).
A little oddly to non-Finnish speakers, the word ruumis, meaning “body”, can also mean “corpse”, but fortunately not in this particular jewel of a poem.
Sinä olet minulle
Kun herään unesta, levänneenä,
sinun katseesi kysyy minua,
etkä saa parempaa vastausta
kuin ruumiini sinulle antaa,
ja sinä epäilet,
vaikka minun ruumiini tietää
enemmän kuin luuletkaan.
You are being unfaithful to me
just that tiny little bit.
As I lie here awake
and reposed, you question me with your gaze,
wondering whether you could get a better answer
than my body gives you.
Indeed, you believe you might —
even though my body knows
much more than you think.
Beyond the Dream is a beautiful love-story with a psychological twist. How refreshing to read about a romantic male “hero” who is modest, kind, and forever concerned about the welfare of others — one can only wish that there were more like him out there in the “real world” . . .
The writer 蔣曉薇 Chiang Hiu-mei lives in Tuen Mun, in the western New Territories of Hong Kong. She has written three novels to date, the most recent of which is The Beaching of Autumn Whales 《秋鯨擱淺》published in 2020.
The following is a translation of the opening section (parts 1-6) of her second novel, a literary rendition of the film 《幻愛》. In it, we meet the character Ah Lok, a likeable young primary school teacher who is trying to get his like back on track after the death of his mother.
Chiang Hiu-mei herself once commented in a video:
最初開始創作嘅時候 | 其實我覺得係，係一個傷口裏面滲透住一啲東西出嚟嘅 | 噉我傷口係由於自己經歷啦 | 亦都有一部分源自於社會嘅變化啦 | 你面對住變化嘅時候 | 其實係好多焦慮呀、無助呀、無力感呀 | 噉但寫作想讓自己可以重新去正視 | 究竟自己嘅恐懼係嚟自啲乜嘢呀？| 點解對於一啲變化咁焦慮呀？
When I first began to create, it actually felt to me like a wound out of which things came seeping. The wound was due to what I had been through; it also partly originated from changes in society. When you confront the changes, then there are in fact many misgivings, helplessness, powerlessness. However, writing can give you the ability to face up to such things anew. What exactly what is the source of one’s terror? Why does one feel so anxious about certain changes?
This sensitivity to suffering is a hallmark of Chiang’s portrayal of Ah Lok, and one that helps the reader to see the world through her character’s eyes, at the same time hopeful and vulnerable to despair.
Other posts on 蔣曉薇 Chiang Hiu-mei and Beyond the Dream:
● Learning Cantonese: A Tuen Mun Love Story . . .
● Learning Cantonese: 蔣曉薇 Chiang Hiu-mei on Hongkongers — Leaving, Staying or Stranded?
● Learning Cantonese: 周冠威 Kiwi Chow “How much are you willing to sacrifice for your home, Hong Kong?”
● Learning Cantonese: 你究竟接唔接受你自己？or Can You Learn to Accept Yourself?
Ah Lok / 1.
Night fell virtually unnoticed, putting the streets to a music quite different from the one heard during daylight hours. The main thoroughfares blazed with light, people moved in jumbled crowds, vehicles shuttled back and forth, and not far off in the distance came the clackety-clack made by the wheels of the light-rail train as its trundled along the tracks. It sounded very much like a musical instrument that had gone out of tune and, if you listened carefully, you might have realized that there was actually some kind of warning in its tone, but the people scurrying this way and that had no time to wonder about what it might be hinting at.
Through this crowd, a middle-aged woman walked with staccato steps, turning over something in her mind, abruptly stopping, then setting off again, only to stop once more not long after. She gazed up into the night sky — a mysterious-looking moonlight shining through a break in the clouds — as if she had glimpsed something ghastly up above, invisible to others. She too no notice of the traffic lights, crossing roads heedless of cars, and would come to a standstill on the footpath as people passed her by. Just as they always did every single day, the shops selling audio-visual equipment blared ear-splitting Mandarin pop songs into the bustling streets. And, as usual, in front of the sparkling neon signs of the foot-massage parlours, there was a prostitute hanging around waiting for a customer. The middle-aged woman passed by the frozen meat stalls, the cha chan teng restaurants, the stores selling mobile phones, looking around this way and that, disoriented, hugging herself tightly with her arms as she went.
She was in great anguish. There were tears on her face and her body twitched uncontrollably. Her dishevelled hair hung down around her shoulders and her lips trembled, as if she were telling herself about some terrible thing that was going to happen to her. All of a sudden, in a great burst of energy, she began to strip off her clothes, but then, just as quickly, she seemed to come to her senses and scrambled to dress herself again. Two opposing forces in her seemed to engaged in a kind of tug of war. After a few moments of further struggle, she could no longer withstand that demon’s promptings — yielding, surrendering, she took off her clothes, one item at a time, then huddled down on the ground in her panties and bra.
When they happened to notice the extraordinary things this middle-aged woman was doing, passers-by cast sidelong glances in her direction. Some of the men stood there boorishly gawping, while mothers shielded their children’s eyes with their hands and hurried them away. When Ah Lok, who was on his way home, saw the large gathering of on-lookers, his curiosity got the better of him. There were just too many people, however, which meant that all he could see was a dense mass of heads — he had no idea what was going on.
Suddenly, he heard a woman’s voice call out in agitation: “What the hell do you think you’re taking pictures of?”
As it turned out, a man in the crowd dressed in a Western-style suit was filming the incident on his mobile phone. Outraged by his behaviour and alert to the injustice it involved, a young woman with long hair ordered him to stop. It was only then that Ah Lok managed to catch a glimpse of the woman in the middle of the crowd squatting on the ground in her underwear. Her eyes had a glazed look in them, as if she had fallen into a trance, and seemed deeply disturbed by something as she stared up at the sky, muttering. When Ah Lok realized it was Ah Ling, he forced a way through the mass of bodies and draped his windcheater over her shoulders.
“Ah Ling, there’s no need to be frightened,” he said.
“Listen! He says he’s going to kill my mother!”
“You’re hearing things. It’s not real!” Ah Lok repeated several times.
When the woman with the long hair noticed that Ah Ling was shivering all over, she took off her shawl and wrapped it around her.
“Is she someone you know?” the long-haired woman asked.
Ah Lok nodded.
Right at that moment, he became aware of a beam of light shining at them — another male passer-by was holding up his phone and filming them. At once, Ah Lok stood up, blocking the lens on the phone with one hand, and said loudly, “Get out of here!”
Ah Ling still looked panic-stricken as if she felt she were under attack from an evil spirit and held on tightly to the hands of the long-haired woman, her body shuddering all the while. She kept her teeth tightly clenched, as if she could see countless malevolent creatures all wanting to hurt her mother, and she could find no way to break through this ring of hostile people. After an interval of pandemonium, an ambulance arrived on the scene. Ah Ling was escorted into the vehicle by a paramedic, with Ah Lok climbing in after them.
As he watched out through the window of the stationary ambulance, Ah Lok saw a police officer questioning the long-haired woman there in the street about what had taken place. Lit up by the street-lights, he finally became aware of the quiet-coloured clothing she had on — an azure-blue denim jacket and a trailing, fine-gauze fabric skirt which accentuated her slender figure. She had an attractive face with very white skin and, beneath a pair of delicate, prettily curved eyebrows, her eyes shone. Ah Lok thought she was extremely beautiful and couldn’t help staring at her in awe.
It was only when the ambulance doors slammed shut that Ah Lok came to his senses. By this time, Ah Ling seemed to have calmed down and had fallen asleep on the stretcher. He suddenly realized that he was still holding the shawl in his hands, left behind by the woman with the long hair, but by this time the ambulance was in motion. He looked out the window but could no longer see any sign of her.
After the ordeals of the evening, it was very late by the time Ah Lok got back home. He carefully pulled open the screen-door before gently closing it behind him, doing his utmost to make sure there was no noise. Yes, that was his nature, conscientious and cautious, concerned that his late return might wake up his neighbours. Even inside his flat, he continued to tread quietly. As he put his backpack down, he still held on to the shawl. He took out a coat-hangar from his wardrobe and hung the shawl up against a window so that it wouldn’t crumple. He looked at the long light-blue garment and thought once again of that woman’s angelic face. That night, things lingered in his mind that were impossible to put into words.
All of a sudden, his phone began to vibrate without ringing. His aunt’s number showed on the screen.
“I’ve been ringing all night! Why haven’t you answered the phone?”
“I turned it off ring mode.”
It occurred to Ah Lok that whenever he watched a match between Manchester United and Chelsea he also kept the sound turned down.
“Your mother’s will has been settled. The people at the public housing association have already transferred the flat so that it’s listed under your name. Don’t forget to go to the Housing Authority to fill out the paperwork.”
“Right. You know, about the banquet my cousin is giving, I think I’d rather give it a miss.”
“Now look, I promised your mother I’d keep an eye on you! That girl in Canton works as a nurse. She knows all about looking after people.”
“I’m quite capable of looking after myself! My mother wouldn’t hold it against you.”
“You listen to me. You need someone to take good care of you for the rest of your life. It’s too good a chance . . .”
His aunt kept on at him with her well-intentioned advice. Ah Lok grunted half-heartedly, more out of politeness than agreement, walking as he did so over to where he kept a photograph of his mother together with the urn that held her ashes. He looked at them both blankly. Beside him was the door to her bedroom — although it was left ajar, he had never once gone inside since her death. He was afraid it would stir up the terror still lurking deep down in his heart and if his mood were triggered it might affect his day-to-day life, something he just couldn’t afford to have happen.
“Ah Lok, are you listening to me?”
“Then that’s settled. I’ll send you over some information I have about her later. She really is a good girl! You mustn’t disappoint your mother’s wishes for you — nor mine for that matter. And don’t forget the paperwork for the flat! It’s getting on, so try and get an early night. You have to go to work tomorrow!”
After his aunt had poured out everything she wanted to say, she hung up. Ah Lok could feel peace and quiet returning to the world.
Ah Lok lived in a two-bedroom flat provided by public housing and had only ever lived there with his mother. The décor was old-fashioned, and completely out of keeping with someone of Ah Lok’s age. In the living room there was a two-seater sofa in front of which was arranged a wooden shelving unit with the television set on it. Next to the unit was the dining table, also made of wood, and if his mother were still alive today there probably would have been a plate of steamed fish laid out on it. His mother had often said that fish was rich in protein and so good for the brain. The flat was very simple and, apart from the wall-calendar and some photographs, there was virtually no decoration of any kind. Not that Ah Lok minded: he was quite happy being on his own and though he would go on living there alone for the rest of his life.
That night, after he’d washed and brushed his teeth, he got into bed. He couldn’t sleep, though — he just lay there looking at the shawl as it rippled in the breeze while his thoughts whirled round and round till he began to feel uneasy. In the end, he got out of bed, removed the shawl, folded it up with great care, and put it back in his backpack. It occurred to him that if a strong wind blew up during the night, it might blow the shawl down into the street; he also thought that if he happened to run into the woman again, he could return it to her. At this point, his phone began to vibrate again. Ah Lok thought it must be his aunt sending through that information about the nurse in Canton, but when he picked it up he saw that it was a video of Ah Ling taking of her clothes sent through by his WhatApp community [群組], with comments on it constantly coming through like stray bullets.
“This is going viral out there!”
“God knows what will happen if Ah Ling sees this!”
“This is just too much!”
“Whatever you do, don’t show this to Ah Ling!”
Ah Lok clicked on the video and saw her stripped of her clothes, shivering there with her bare arms wrapped around her. The more he watched the more his outrage grew, until he jumped out of bed, turned on his laptop and, on a Facebook page with the title “Mental Health Alliance”, typed in the headline “Stop Inflicting a Second Level Pain — Mental Illness is Only an Illness!”. He then proceeded to key in the contents of his post: “Those who suffer from mental illness are just like you and me. It’s just that sometimes something goes wrong with them, and is no different from when ordinary people like you and me catch a cold, become diabetics or contract some form of heart disease. Their sickness is not something they have any control over. The key thing is, as with most other forms of disease, people can recover from mental illness given the right treatment. Perhaps to most of us, the things people do when they have an episode of mental illness can seem pretty weird, but in actual fact only a very small number of sufferers behave in such ways. And even if they do sometimes act a bit differently from the rest of us, such behaviour is only a symptom of their sickness and is totally beyond their control . . .”
His eyes glued to the screen, and with his fingers flying across the keyboard, in no time Ah Lok had written a long post in which he took netizens to task for rubbing salt into the wounds of people suffering from mental illness. The more he wrote, the angrier Ah Lok grew — if there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was criticism of people with a mental illness by outsiders with no experience of the issues, criticism which only added to their pain. In conclusion, he appealed to readers to adopt a positive attitude with regard to people with mental illness to help them make the transition back into social life. If no extra pressures were put on them, their chances of recovery would only be enhanced.
When he was finished, he looked up at the garage-kit figurine of the Incredible Hulk he kept on the windowsill, a film character he was very fond of. He then added his sign-off at the end of the post — Angry Hulk — and then slammed his computer shut in disgust.
That night, he seemed doomed to sleeplessness, a ball of fire blazing angrily in his chest which scorched, it seemed, both his body and his mind.
When he heard the alarm ring on his phone, Ah Lok scrambled upright and switched it off. He rubbed his chest — that searing anger he had felt the previous evening was still smouldering away in his heart, it seemed. He got up and went into the living room, where he poured himself a cup of boiled water from the thermos. After gulping it down, he began to feel a bit better.
Ah Lok was not the kind of person who like lazing around in bed. He set himself high standards and disliked imposing on other people in any way. Although you couldn’t say he was particularly quick off the mark, he was never late for work and always arrived a quarter of an hour before the appointed time. After taking a shower, he looked at his watch and thought that he could probably make the light-rail service that left at forty-eight minutes past. Before heading out, he unzipped his backpack just to make sure the shawl was safely packed inside, then, closing the screen-door quietly, he set off for the station.
Ah Lok worked as a Phys. Ed. teacher in a primary school. He liked his job and, even though most of the children disliked going to class, they were always happy doing P.E. Some ran around, others jumped all over the place, fooling around and having a good time, and from every part of playground you could hear the sound of their laughter, as if that vague wish for “eternal happiness” could actually come true. Of course, if Ah Lok happened to be walking past, he would become a target for their attacks and things would get completely chaotic, with no semblance of order whatsoever.
Ah Lok made a start on his lesson. The subject of today’s class was soccer and he began by demonstrating the skills required to shoot for goal. After the demonstration, he asked the students to copy his movements and to practice kicking the ball at the goal. Unfortunately, a soccer ball was to these kids a lethal weapon and, as soon as they got one between their feet, they would start kicking it left and right as hard as they could, instant warfare breaking out on the playground. Ah Lok stood in front of goal as keeper, while the children tried to score, kicking the ball in all sorts of different ways. Countless soccer balls went flying around the playground and Ah Lok would deftly throw himself on his side saving any number of certain goals. The children, however, were undeterred, and several of them would shoot at goal in unison, kicking as if their feet were fitted with springs. The more they kicked, the more excited they became, and the more frenetic their shots on goal became until Ah Lok could withstand them no more and lay down on the ground, gasping for breath. He gestured to them, indicating that he wanted a ceasefire and pretending to plead for mercy, something that made the children roar with laughter. No one at that moment noticed the pair of eyes watching them intently from above.
When the class came to an end, he dismissed his pupils and, having a short break before his next class, went off and gathered up all the soccer balls, then returned them to the store room. On his way back to the staff room, he passed a male teacher showing another colleague something on his phone, but paid no attention to them. He wanted to give his give his face a wash in preparation for the next session.
As he moved past the pair, however, the man with the phone handed it to Ah Lok and said: “Have you seen this, Mr Lee?”
At once Ah Lok saw that it was clip of Ah Ling taking off her clothes. Then, by chance, a secretary from the school’s admin. office happened to come by and joined their group.
“The number of crazy people in Hong Kong is growing by the day!”
“A mad woman like that shouldn’t be allowed to run around at will!”
“She’s a mature, grown-up woman! That’s a bit rich, isn’t it!”
“She’s not mad. It’s probably a psychosis that gives her hallucinations and makes her hear voices that aren’t really there. She can’t help it.” Ah Lok explained earnestly.
At this moment, a female secretary went by holding a newspaper in her hand. Seeing them talking there together, she walked over and began leafing through the pages. In it there was a story on Ah Ling taking off her clothes. Next to the report was a photograph of her.
“That’s you in the photo. I thought the face looked familiar!” said the female secretary.
“Oh, so you were there, on the spot!”
“Is she a friend of yours?”
“No, she’s not. I just happened to be passing by,” said Ah Lok, denying any connection.
“You’re a saint. If I’d been in your shoes, I would have cleared out as fast as I could.”
“Of course, you would have! Who knows what dreadful things she might have done! It’s all very well to say that a mental illness is only an illness, but it perfectly natural to feel alarmed if you happened to be passing by.”
After completing a circuit of the school, the principal descended from the fourth floor. When he reached the door of the administrative office, he caught sight of the group in animated discussion, and a look of disapproval appeared on his face. He pretended to cough a couple of times, just like the typical stern boss in some television soap opera. When the members of the group caught sight of him, they all went back to work, not daring to continue their discussion.
Suddenly, the headmaster spoke, his tone icy: “Mr Lee, please come and see me after work! I would like you to do a bit of critical reflection on your class-management practices.”
Before he had time to make a response, the principal had already disappeared into the administrative office, the door closing behind him. He had no idea what it was that the principal wanted him to reflect on, but he seemed to remember the man’s brow having the colour and texture of a charred walnut.
Whether coming or going, Ah Lok’s daily travel was all done on the light rail, the largest transport network connecting up all of Tuen Mun, and he couldn’t help thinking that the place must be a rather forsaken corner — otherwise why would they have built a transport system here that the rest of the world regards as a dismal failure? At a time when everyone was talking about creating a “one hour living circle” for the whole Greater Bay Area, it still took a bone-rattling one-hour journey all up to get from Tuen Mun Pier to Fu Tin MTR station — and if you didn’t get on at the terminus, you wouldn’t even dream of finding a vacant seat. At peak hour — going to, or coming from, work — people jammed the carriages like sardines in a tin, and with every breath you breathed in the hot sweat of others. Life being difficult enough already, Ah Lok wanted to spare himself any additional annoyance, and so always chose to avoid the crowds, waiting until the evening rush-hour was over before catching the light rail home. In any case, there was nowhere else he had to be. And in any case, he was on his own.
As he walked at a leisurely pace to the light-rail platform, Ah Lok thought over what the headmaster had said to him, how he wasn’t to join in too freely with the children’s games; how, after long observation, he had noted that the children didn’t stick to the proper discipline during their Phys. Ed. classes; and how this could be dangerous. Ah Lok explained to the headmaster that he joined in with the children to make the classes more enjoyable for them and, as a result, could help them deal with the pressures of study better. The principal, however, did not accept Ah Lok’s explanations, and insisted that a clear boundary be maintained between teachers and students — any transgression of this boundary benefited neither party. Naturally, Ah Lok was reluctant to accept such instructions. To take his mind off the issue took one of Haruki Murakami’s books down from the book-desk in the staff room and started to read — only Murakami seemed to understand the world of the lonely.
With a ding ding of the bell, the light rail pulled in very slowly to the platform. There were two carriages on this service and, when the doors opened, he entered the rear one. There weren’t many passengers on board, and he found a place to stand near the window where he immersed himself in his book. As the light rail slowly pulled out from the station, gliding slowly along the rails, it put all that hubbub and confusion behind it, leaving only the clickety-clack it made to reverberate around the housing estates. After a while, the light rail had to make a turn — happening to look out the window, Ah Lok caught sight of a familiar face in the carriage up in front. Putting his book away, he immediately made his way to the head of the carriage in the hope of getting a clearer view. It was her, the woman with the long hair he had met the previous night, sitting in the front carriage! He felt a rush of excitement and all the smouldering resentment he felt about his interview with the headmaster before leaving work evaporated instantly. He watched her intently, not letting her out of his sight for a moment.
The woman had no idea that Ah Lok was watching her. She leant against the window intently watching the streetscape, her look gentle, refined. It seemed as if, to her, these perfectly ordinary streets and housing estates were a rare sight. Her attire this evening was slightly different to that of the previous night — she wore her hair pulled back in a pony-tail and was dressed in sporting gear, relaxed and yet animated, giving her a certain freshness. Sometimes the two carriages seemed close together, sometimes far apart, stopping and starting in the course of the short journey. When the carriages were in a straight line, the view of where the long-haired woman was sitting would be blocked by other passengers standing in the way and at those moments when he couldn’t see her, Ah Lok’s heart seemed to hang in mid-air, as he moved this way and then in the effort to catch a glimpse. But when the carriages had to make a turn and he caught sight of her through the window, his heart would grow vivid again. To him, the distance between the two carriages was tantalising, somehow both near and yet remote, keeping him at arm’s length. Turbulent waves rose up in his thoughts and, although there were sometimes lulls, those thoughts could never be calmed.
Finally, after the light-rail train had pulled up at the platform, and after a rush of passengers got on and off, the doors slowly closed again, he discovered that the young woman with the long hair was no longer on board. This second encounter, then, concluded abruptly to the clang of the warning bell as the train set off. Any hope — the hope that was so near that you could reach out and touch it — vanished silently in an instant, leaving him anxious and dejected, and at a complete loss as to what to do next.
In the dim lamp-light, the long streets stilled, Ah Lok felt that he had lost out by missing the chance to get to know the girl with the long hair. He trudged on holding a copy of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and made his way home in a daze.
Ah Lok lived in a public housing estate built in the well pattern, its four identical sides enclosing an open space in the centre. All you had to do was look up and you could see the sky. The corridors on each floor were like public thoroughfares — lean against the railings and you could see inhabitants of all the various storeys. Back in the old days, neighbours would play mahjong in those corridors, dry cotton-wadded quilts and fruit-peel in the sun, while children would boil wax in the stair-wells or play blind man’s buff. Ever since the introduction of the Marking Scheme for Estate Management Enforcement, however, such features of the human landscape could no longer be seen.
Ah Lok entered the estate and walked across the open sky-well, but when he looked up, all he could see was a thick covering of cloud — neither moonlight not starlight was visible. He thought to himself that in many ways he resembled Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki, not only not having any friends but also shunned by the stars! He plodded over to the elevator were lobby and before long a lift arrived. He pressed the button for the eighteenth floor, then the doors began to close slowly. Just then, Ah Lok heard someone asking him to open the lift doors again and, of course, he did so at once. Once fully opened he came face to face the young woman he had met the previous evening.
He was so stunned he did not know how to react. He just stared as she pressed the button for the nineteenth floor, after which she smiled politely in his direction.
Ah Lok felt tense all over, and his heart thumped in his chest. From time to time, he looked furtively at the girl, but she kept her eyes fixed on the floor display screen, lips pursed with a hint of a smile.
The two of them stood there side by side, neither daring to move, let alone speak. An atmosphere of embarrassment — together with something indefinable — filled the air.
After a protracted silence, the lift arrived at the eighteenth floor and the doors slid apart. Ah Lok finally plucked up the courage to ask: “Do you remember me?”
“I wasn’t sure you’d remember me,” the long-haired young woman said with a smile on her face.
They look at one another, smiling. Ah Lok felt his face flush red and was unable to say another word, so he took a step back out through the elevator doors, waving his goodbyes to her. However, his gaze never left her smiling face until the lift doors closed up again.
Ah Lok stood there dumbfounded, unable to believe what had just happened — it was if the world had regained all the colour it was supposed to have had. He grinned, pleased with himself and walked to the door of his flat humming a song. It was only when he got there that he realized he had forgotten something very important. He ran back to the sky-well corridor and looked up at the next level. There he saw the long-haired young woman walking along.
He called to her in a loud voice: “Hey, there!” At once he realized he was making too much noise and looked around, concerned that he had disturbed the other residents.
The woman looked down and, when she saw that it was Ah Lok calling to her from the sky-well, she looked astonished. Ah Lok then opened his backpack and took out the shawl, giving it a light shake with his hands. When the woman saw what it was, she laughed with delight at the surprise. Without giving the matter a second thought, Ah Lok turned and ran up to the nineteenth floor.
Ah Lok needed no more than a moment to cover the distance to her but, perhaps because of his excitement, this man who could run a long-distance race of three thousand metres without any obvious effort found himself panting a little for breath. He did everything he could, however, to maintain his smiling appearance and handed the shawl over to her. The young woman with the long hair took it from him and thanked him, a sweet expression on her face.
The two of them stood there without saying anything more for a long while, each of them smiling at the smile on the other’s face, as the atmosphere of embarrassment made its presence felt once more.
“You, ah, live in No. 26 on the nineteenth floor while I’m in No. 26 on the eighteenth,” Ah Lok said, pointing at the door plate with his right hand while trying to figure out what to do with his left.
“Really?” she said, laughing again, a faint red tinge suddenly appearing on her pale face.
“Uh-huh,” replied Ah Lok, staring at her blankly. How beautiful she was, he thought, oblivious of the fact that he too was blushing.
“Well, next time we meet, don’t go calling me ‘hey, there’ at the top of your voice. My name is Yan Yan.” As she spoke, she carefully unlocked her metal screen door.
“My name is Lee Chi-lok, the chi character is the one used in chi-hei (meaning “ambition”), while the lok is like the one in chi-lok.”
What Ah Lok meant to say was that the lok was like the one in faai-lok (“happy”), but he was so flustered it came out all wrong.
Yan Yan laughed and blushed out of shyness, then went inside, lightly closing the screen-door behind her. Ah Lok stayed there at the front door watching her go, a sweet smile on his face. Until he fell asleep that night, the sweetness of this smile did not leave the corners of his mouth. In his heart he felt sure he would see Yan Yan again.
Ah Lok sat on the light-rail platform, constantly scanning the entrances and exits, consumed by a whirl of agitated emotions. This time, he did not bring his book with him, having only one aim in mind: to meet with Yan Yan again, and walk with her over the pedestrian overpass and then back along the road to where they both lived.
them intently, muscles taut with anticipation. There were people in the crowd chatting in putonghua laced with snatches of Cantonese; men dressed in perfectly ironed Western-style suits; a woman carrying the children’s school bags on her back and speaking in her own language with an Indonesian husband about some video; there were individuals so tired they appeared to be on the verge of collapse; some scolded their children as they got off the train, their eyes glued to the screen of their mobile phones the whole time; and not a few had shopping trolleys, tottering unsteadily with every step they took. As it happened, there was a sizeable population of old people living alone in the estate, and most of them would rather take the light rail to do their shopping at the San Hui Market than visit the more expensive Link Reit market in the place they lived, feeling it necessary to go to that extra bit of trouble if it meant saving a few cents here or there. When Ah Lok saw the trouble these elderly residents were having with their trolleys, he couldn’t bear it, and would go to their aid, lifting the trolley onto the pedestrian footbridge for them. But as soon as another light-rail train came along, he would dash back to the platform.
As night began to fall, it gradually grew darker and the platform gradually became deserted without Ah Lok have seen any trace of Yan Yan. He sat there thinking to himself that it was no easy thing meeting up with someone — timeliness, location and compatibility all had to be right. It was no wonder some people claimed that you couldn’t go out and find love; you had to bide your time until fate was good and ready. Ah Lok was well aware of this wise adage, but still he was unable to reconcile himself to it. As he made his way over the pedestrian footbridge, he kept turning around to look behind him, in the hope of catching a glimpse of Yan Yan somewhere in the vicinity.
After a walk of over ten minutes, he arrived back at the housing estate. When he reached the open sky-well, he stopped and gazed upwards at flat no. 26 on the nineteenth floor, the place where Yan Yan dwelled and lived out her life. There were still lights on in the flat, he noticed, which meant that Yan Yan had already made it home again — there was little chance of him seeing her tonight, it would seem.
Ah Lok had originally planned to phone his aunt once he got back in to say he wasn’t coming to his cousin’s banquet but suddenly a door above slammed with a tremendous bang, which made Ah Lok hurry back outside into the corridor to see what was going on. When he looked up, he saw that Yan Yan had been driven out of her flat and was leaning against the railing holding an iron bar in both hands. She looked scared out of her wits and at times her face turned a ghastly shade of white.
At that moment, she happened to look down, and when she caught sight of Ah Lok looking up at her, she was overcome with embarrassment since she wasn’t wearing anything on her feet. Ah Lok gestured to her, inviting her to come down to the eighteenth floor. When she came face to face with him on the stairs between floors, she seemed uncomfortable. It was getting late, Ah Lok thought, and it wouldn’t do for a young woman to be seen hanging around in the corridor — she was sure to get a few looks from the other residents. He suggested she come over to his place for a moment, just to calm her nerves.
Ah Lok’s flat was still in darkness, but there was a faint light coming in from outside over the window ledges, and Yan Yan walked around, appraising everything. Suddenly, they heard the loud crash of hard objects being throw around in the flat above.
“My dad gets into a drunken rage every time he drinks,” Yan Yan quietly explained.
Ah Lok was listening carefully to what was going on overhead. He was caught off guard when Yan Yan suddenly turned and fired a question at him: “You don’t drink, do you?”
“No, no way,” Ah Lok replied.
At once she replied, “Whatever you do, don’t drink!”
She walked slowly over to the shelving unit and swept a hand over the pitch-black television screen, murmuring as she did so: “You don’t put the sound up too loud, do you?”
“I can’t stand loud noise.”
“Loud television noise makes people irritable.
Ah Lok nodded in agreement.
Yan Yan squatted down, finding an EP in the shelving unit — a CD with just the one song on it, Faye Wang’s “Eyes on Me”. She picked it up and looked at it carefully, discovering on the back an image taken from the video game Final Fantasy VIII.
“I didn’t know Faye Wong sang in English as well.”
“Oh yes. I really love that song.”
Yan Yan looked at the CD again, then smiled at Ah Lok before putting it back on the shelf. Ah Lok had no idea what that smile meant, although he sensed it had something to do with the words “eyes on me”, a thought that made him feel slightly uncomfortable.
Yan Yan turned her gaze to the white walls. Hanging on them, there were many photographs of Ah Lok together with his mother, taken when he was small. There was one of them drinking Vitasoy together, and one in which he sat on his mother’s lap on a swing, beside himself with glee.
“So you live here with your mother?”
“She died last month,” replied Ah Lok, his voice quavering with a hint of emotion.
Sensing she had said the wrong thing, Yan Yan couldn’t think of anything else to keep the conversation going. She looked at him apologetically and then with a surprising simplicity sat herself down on the floor right next to his bed, patting the ground as an invitation to Ah Lok to come and join her. Out of shyness, he was reluctant at first, but he did as he was told. It was dark in the room, and the street light coming in from outside only sufficient to show the young woman in silhouette — she was bare-footed and sat with her knees bent up. Lost for words, Ah Lok kept his eyes glued to the wall-clock, not daring to look directly at Yan Yan.
“Was your mother very fond of you?”
“She used to say that no one in this world could love me as much as she did.”
When he glimpsed the look of pity in her face, Ah Lok felt a burst of warmth. Sitting there in silence, they again heard a series of loud banging noises coming from the flat above which made Yan Yan cringe involuntarily like a white rabbit cowering in its burrow, terrified that it would be seized. Picking up on her terror, Ah Lok inched a little closer to her but there never any physical contact between them. These two fellow-sufferers huddled up against night’s onslaught, wordlessly keeping one another company. Ah Lok thought to himself that no matter how bad things got, there would be some moments of sweetness, and two people who were originally completely unconnected could bear the burden of each other’s pain through the course of a long night.
For the past six weeks, I’ve been driving around the Swedish landscape with Tomas Tranströmer in search of a mystery. Human beings are like fällda bommar = “lowered boom-gates”, he decides. Whenever mystery show itself, the human response is to drop into sleep, completely oblivious of any enigma. There are glimpses of something uncanny at night, and in the shared arboreal silence of the forest and, of course, in dream, or more specifically in that intermediary state between waking and dream. But the final word of the poem is both its key-note and its conclusion: förgäves — “in vain”.
We cannot understand, but we must try to deepen our questions. This at least is one of the uses of poetry, our open-ended unanswer to everything . . .
Jag kör genom en by om natten, husen stiger fram
i strålkastarskenet – de är vakna, de vill dricka.
Hus, lador, skyltar, herrelösa fordon – det är nu
de ikläder sig livet. Människorna sover:
I drive through a village at night. Houses loom out
at me in the glare of headlights, awake and thirsty.
Buildings, barns, road-signs, vehicles without drivers — now it’s their turn
to dress themselves in Life. The human beings sleep.
en del kan sova fridfullt, andra har spända anletsdrag
som om de låg i hård träning för evigheten.
De vågar inte släppa allt fast deras sömn är tung.
De vilar som fällda bommar när mysteriet drar förbi.
Some manage to rest in peace; others grimace
as they lie there, tense, as if training hard for eternity.
They don’t dare let go of anything, although slumber is so heavy for them.
They are like boom-gates, lowered when the mystery sweeps on past.
Utanför byn går vägen länge mellan skogens träd.
Och träden träden tigande i endräkt med varann.
De har en teatralisk färg som finns i eldsken.
Vad deras löv är tydliga! De följer mig ända hem.
Beyond the village, the road continues on a long way
through forest trees, all standing there in silent mutual accord.
Their colours are theatrical, the kind you see in open firelight.
How clearly the leaves stand out, following me all the way home.
Jag ligger och ska somna, jag ser okända bilder
och tecken klottrande sig själva bakom ögonlocken
på mörkrets vägg. I springan mellan vakenhet och dröm
försöker ett stort brev tränga sig in förgäves.
I lie down and will sleep. Unfamiliar pictures
and designs graffiti themselves behind my eyelids
on darkness’s wall. In vain, an enormous letter
tries to force its way through the slot between waking and dream.
To me, poetry at its best, always gets the reader thinking about her own response to things. Resonant in itself, it can also create resonance in others and — by intimating rather than lecturing — allow discoveries to be made of their own accord, as if by magic.
This poem — literally “memory poem” [muistoruno] — is very understated in its presentation. What I take from it is a kind of double death, by which I mean that Immonen commemorates in her poem the death of certain kind of Dark Death, the grim imagery of the “black butterfly” and the “scythe” [viikate]. As she matter-of-factly points out, mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä = “people still die all the time”, but perhaps now without that mediaeval terror. The closing lines suggest a more natural-accepting attitude to death: from the butterfly and the cicada, we finish with cornflowers and sedge grass, things that meet the end of their living without fuss and as a matter of course. I think that is why the poem has yhtä | ruiskukan ja saraheinän kanssa or “the equal of the cornflower and the sedge-grass”, a thought that can take one back to Walt Whitman, leaning and loafing as he observes “a spear of Summer grass”.
An innocuous piece of structural language is crucial, I think, to an understanding of the sense of the whole poem. The phrase tälta osin is used with the meanings of “in this connection; to this end”, perhaps also “in this regard”. The opening lines thus read “The time of the black butterfly | is tälta osin over”, leaving us to ponder the question of what exactly in death is over, especially given the contradiction of the line that comes immediately after it, mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä = “but people are continually dying”.
I struggled with the what is to me the most striking image in “Muistoruno” presented in lines 4-5: “who have never taken the trouble | to raise their voices above the song of the cicadas”. According to my little Finnish-English dictionary compiled by Aino Wuolle, the verb viitsia = “to care to”, but the only example given for it is en viitsinyt = “I couldn’t be bothered”, which suggests an element of laziness or unwillingness. However, I have chosen (perhaps wrongly) to interpret the phrase as meaning something positive, along the lines of “who have never wasted their time complaining or lamenting about the terrors of death”. Also, from the little research I have done, I get the impression that kaskas is a kind of insect like a leaf-hopper, but a laulukaskas or “song leaf-hopper” is the usual term for a cicada. However, in the case of cicadas, the word “song” seems a bit misleading: “cry” or “screech” is probably closer to the mark.
There is another little piece of vocabulary used in the poem to great effect: yhtä = “equal”. From the short-lived cicadas calling from the tree-tops, we are plunged down to ground level, where the mown flowers lie. This down-to-earth-ness reinforces the kind of attitude Immonen wants to share with us about dying. As Mr Emerson, in conversation with his son, says about Heaven in the novel Room with a View:
“You will never go up […]. You and I, dear boy, will lie at peace in the earth that bore us, and our names will disappear as surely as our work survives.”
This means, death as an equalization with the Earth, and not an annihilation.
“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting”, said Robert Frost, and then followed this up with “Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it”. I think Immonen melts wonderfully well, and even across the language barrier is capable of carrying any patient reader along with her.
Mustan perhosen aika
on tälta osin ohi,
mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä
jotka koskaan eivät viitsineet
korottaa ääntään kaskaiden laulun yläpuolelle
ja lopulta olivat yhtä
ruiskukan ja saraheinän kanssa
The time of the black butterfly
is over — in one respect,
but people go on dying nevertheless,
people who never once cared
to raise their voice above the cry of the cicadas
and who — in the end —
were the equals of cornflower and sedge-grass,
I recently watched the Finnish film Mestari Cheng, about a chef from Shanghai who goes looking for an old friend in the north of Finland. It’s special when two of one’s interest come together in such an unexpected yet satisfying way, and there is much to enjoy in this trilingual film (English is used as the bridging language) — linguistically, culturally and spiritually. The whole of the film resonates with a translator’s sensibility . . .
One thing that struck me powerfully was the landscape with its vast stretches of rock and water, and the special light at twilight in Summer. I have never been to Finland, but I have been to Finnish, and I sensed, very vaguely, that I was seeing in the natural environment something that I had very faintly once perceived in the rhythms, sounds and grammatical twinings of that language. Eager for more, I took out a small book of poems by Liisa Immonen entitled Synnyin maailmaan (I was born into the world, 1982) and found in it a very short poem that has something of that same quality in it, reminiscent of that hymn Cat Stevens used to sing (“Morning has broken / Like the first morning”), but tougher, more prehistoric, elemental.
I am no expert in the language, but I was helped and guided by the absence of verbs and the strong contrasts in the poem. Firstly, there is the very palpable contrast between the “hot springs” and the “chill zones”, the idea of “zone” expressed by the noun vyöhyke. Then comes a second contrast, boosted by a strong parallelism, between muinainen = “ancient” and äsken luotu, which I think means “just now created” but am not entirely sure about (please feel free to correct me!). Finally, there is an imagistic contrast, in which the smoothness and quick movement of the sisiliskot (“lizards”) is the diametric opposite of the rough and immobile rantakivikko or “the stony soil of the shore”. With simple means, Immonen evokes that double quality of time as both vast temporal continuum and a reptile-fleet instant. And to me it’s wonderful the way the rhythms instantly quicken at the end when — amongst all that inert matter — darting Life suddenly appears on the scene.
Aamut nousevat, kummat lähteet
Ja kaikki on muinaista,
Ja kaikki on äsken luotua,
Dawn after dawn. Hot springs
in frigid zones.
And everything so ancient
and so now freshly created:
lizards darting in amongst the pebbles of the shore.