Li Er, whose innovative works of fiction have earned the admiration of scholars and critics—and a passionate fan base of readers—is one of China’s most prominent writers. This landmark publication of his Coloratura, a tour de force of literary innovation, marks the first translation of the author’s novels into English.
Set against the turbulent backdrop of the Chinese Civil War, Coloratura revolves around the mysterious Ge Ren, whose story is told by three narrators and a host of other voices. Who was Ge Ren really? Just about the only thing anyone can agree on is that he is dead. But how he died, and who he was when alive, are less than certain. Was Ge Ren a hero, a Nationalist or Communist, a poet, translator, scholar, or spy—or some combination of all these identities? And how much of his story is merely fanciful “coloratura” nonsense?
As different factions fight for control of China, Ge Ren traverses the political and intellectual life of the country, managing to affect countless lives. Years later, in the present day, his final surviving descendant, the intriguing “compiler” of the novel, pieces together the stories of her enigmatic ancestor from a patchwork of narrators, reliable or otherwise, and historical documents, real or invented. But readers also will wonder if she has an agenda of her own.
The search for Ge Ren takes us from Chairman Mao’s stronghold at Yan’an to a barren People’s Commune, and then farther afield, with excursions into Russia, Japan, and even a small town in England. Many of the characters and incidents are actual historical figures and events, woven seamlessly into the fictional storyline. Told with swashbuckling brio and painstaking historical detail, Coloratura is both an illuminating journey through twentieth-century Chinese history and a profound exploration of the elusive nature of truth.
About the Author
Jeremy Tiang, a playwright, novelist, and short-story writer, is the award-winning translator of more than 10 books from Chinese.
Read an Excerpt
To Tell the Truth
Time: March 1943
Place: En route from Baibei to Hong Kong
Speaker: Dr. Bai Shengtao
Listener: Lieutenant-General Fan Jihuai
Transcriber: Fan Jihuai's aide, Ding Kui
General, to tell the truth, it was Tian Han who brought me the news. I was still in Back Ditch then. In your line of work, of course you've heard of Back Ditch at Date Garden. Right, there was a northwestern public school there, and a detention center. I was in the detention center, naturally. Coming up on two months there. That night, when Tian Han came to see me in Back Ditch, I thought for sure he was coming to send off a hometown fellow. It was the end of the road for me. Really, after studying medicine and being on the battlefield, I had seen my share of corpses. I shouldn't have been scared. Yet as soon as I saw him and smelled the reek of alcohol coming off his body, my gallbladder shrank, like I'd plunged into ice. But the news he brought was unexpected.
He led me out. I saw his bodyguards in the courtyard a dozen paces away, hunched over like moving shrubs. There were also sentries and guard patrols, all holding those red-tasseled spears, though the tassels looked black [in the dark]. At that moment the north wind rose, and snow began to fall. A bodyguard walked over and gave Tian Han a twill shirt, like something a hospital patient might wear, but softer than you'd get off a country loom. Only the top brass and those scholars who'd just arrived in Yan'an wore stuff like that. I won't lie to you: when Tian Han draped it over my shoulders, my tears started flowing, and snot followed. Tian Han looked at me as if he wanted to say something, but he kept quiet. My brain was all jumbled up. After we'd been standing outside a while, he said, It's cold here, let's go back to Back Ditch. Instead of leading me back to the detention center, he took me to a nice, warm cave house. I took in the pictures of Lenin and the classroom charts on the wall, and realized we were in one of the offices of the northwestern public school. He took off his shoes, pulled out the insoles, and held them over the brazier with tongs. A guard came in and tried to take them from him, but he waved the guy away — told him to stand outside and not let anyone in. Soon the cave was stinking from his roasting shoes, and with the smoke from the coal fire, my eyes could barely stay open. You'll laugh at me, but the smell actually seemed pleasant at the time. Intimate. He undid his pants and tossed a flea into the flames. I heard it go pop. He caught a few more after that, but those he didn't burn; he squashed them with his fingernail.
The alcohol fumes coming off him were intoxicating. He rooted around in his clothes a bit and produced a wine gourd. He handed it to me, and then he pulled out two cups, which he quickly wiped clean with his thumb. He poured himself a drink, then one for me too. "Drink up. What? Do I need to serve you?" This was the first time in two months that someone had offered me a drink. Tears filled my eyes. When he rummaged around in his shirt and came up with a couple of pig trotters, I had to bite my lip to stop drooling. Tian Han asked how my drink was, and I said, Fine, it's great. And that's when I got the news. I had just taken my first bite of trotter when he said, "There's something I need to tell you: Ge Ren's still alive." I was so startled I jumped to my feet, as if the flames had scorched my ass.
To tell the truth, I could hardly believe my ears. Last winter, in Year 31 of the Republic [i.e., 1942], I got back to Yan'an from the front line, and Tian Han tearfully told me that Ge Ren was dead. His eyes and nose were streaming as he said how, in the summer of 31, Ge Ren had led a unit on a mission one evening to a place called Two Li Mound, and out of nowhere they had encountered some Japanese soldiers. Two Li Mound has a Guan Yu temple, and Ge Ren's troops fought the enemy all around the temple for hours, before finally sacrificing themselves for the nation, becoming heroes of the People. He mentioned that some people were privately comparing Ge Ren to Guan Yu himself, and the local populace was calling for a tablet to be raised to him in the temple. When Tian Han told me this, I wept and didn't know what to say. For the next long while, I dreamed of Ge Ren every night, and each time I'd wake up sobbing. Who'd have thought, after all that, that Ge Ren would still be alive?
Having made his announcement, Tian Han slapped his thigh hard and yelled, "Fuck a donkey, I'm so glad, so glad. Comrade Ge Ren survived the worst — he's sure to be rewarded. So many sleepless nights I've had." Then he immediately warned me not to tell a soul. It'd be disastrous if word got out; the Japanese and the Nationalist rebels would surely bring forward their attack, and if that happened, Comrade Ge Ren's life wouldn't be worth very much.
There you go, sir, you know what's what. You're right: Tian Han had something else on his mind, and that's why he braved the snow to come see me. I'd thought of that too, but he wasn't bringing it up, and I didn't dare broach it. As I gnawed the last bit of flesh off one trotter, he finally said he was ordering me to go on a trip south, to bring Ge Ren back. Hang on, let me think what he actually said. Ah, that's right: "Comrade Ge Ren's had a hard time down south. He was feeble enough to start with, and his lungs are bad. This will have been hard on him. Go fetch him back, and let him rest up a few days in Yan'an. You're a doctor, you're the best person for the job. What do you think? If you do this for me, I will talk to the leadership afterward about fixing your problem. Even if you aren't ashamed to be labeled a Trotskyite, I'm ashamed for you. Who asked us to be from the same village? But let's be upfront about this. If you mess this up, don't blame me for punishing you, like when Zhuge Liang tearfully beheaded Ma Su in Romance of the Three Kingdoms."
He kept things vague. Only said south, no mention of Bare Mountain, and even less of Baibei Town. I answered, Well, I'm just a lowly scholar, and I've already made a grave error going down the wrong path. I don't know if I can do this. He said, It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. So I wish you all the best on your mission. I asked if the leadership had already made up their minds. His face sank, and he held up the red-hot tongs. "You, oh you, you're like a dog that won't stop eating its own shit. I need you to remember something: If it's not your question to ask, then keep your mouth shut, and definitely don't go writing about it in your diary. If you didn't say anything, no one would take you for a mute. And if you don't write in your diary, no one will think you're illiterate." I jumped to my feet and said, I tramped across the county to get to Yan'an because I wanted to make a sacrifice for the Revolution. Now that my chance has come, I'll bleed or get beheaded if I have to, but I won't lose sight of the lesson you've taught me.
Tian Han's orders were for me to stay in Back Ditch that night. He even told the guard to let me have a cave to myself. I didn't sleep a wink, and kept getting up to pee. Each time that I shook myself off, I would bow to the bust of Lenin. Because of the snow, both heaven and earth were the sort of gray that made it look like sunrise was imminent. The rooster must have been bewitched by the snow, because it kept crowing in the middle of the night. On every crow, I scrambled out of bed and stood there, involuntarily lifting my leg. After a few times, my right leg started twitching, and I began to worry that the inflamed veins in my right calf would get worse, which would force me to delay my departure. Since entering the detention center, I had gotten kicked quite a few times on that spot, and it was very sensitive.
People need to say how they feel — that's a kind of happiness. Yes, when I thought about how Ge Ren and I would be able to pour our hearts out to each other, I felt this would be a good trip. When Ge Ren laid eyes on me, he was sure to turn bright red. He was a bashful fellow, and would blush at the slightest kindness. You're right, sir, that's not in keeping with his status as a revolutionary. Once he found out I had traveled thousands of miles to fetch him, I would be staggered if he didn't flush red. That's what I was thinking as I drifted off to sleep, while the rooster crowed on. No sooner had I dozed off than there was an enormous crash, and someone started shouting, Alert! Alert! while others wept and cursed. I thought the enemy must have arrived, so I picked up a large stone, thinking I could at least make a last stand. Then I listened more closely to the screaming, and realized that one of the caves that made up the detention center had collapsed, crushing several prisoners. Good question, General Fan. How could a cave collapse just like that? Could it be that these convicts had been so bold as to dig an escape tunnel? If even I could think of that, then naturally the Back Ditch interrogation team would too. My scalp went a little numb, and I imagined seeing the bullets enter right between their eyebrows.
I was lost in thought when a figure darted in, grabbed my arm, and dragged me out. I said, "How can I help you, comrade?" He told me to shut up and follow him. In the courtyard, there was enough blurry light reflected off the snow for me to see that he was one of Tian Han's bodyguards. The little bastard was chatty; he told me that his boss had sent him to see if I was injured. After a while, we got to a livestock pen, and there was Tian Han. His hands were tucked into the sleeves of his sheepskin coat, and a cigarette dangled from his mouth. He told me to leave Yan'an at once. I was to rush to Zhangjiakou with all possible speed, where I would meet Dou Sizhong, and only then would I travel south to fetch Ge Ren. No, sir, he still hadn't mentioned Baibei. As for my actual task, he said that Dou Sizhong would explain in person. And who was Dou Sizhong? One of Tian Han's subordinates. They'd been through thick and thin together, and Dou was fiercely loyal. More about him later. When he [Tian Han] mentioned Zhangjiakou, I immediately thought of my father-in-law. That's where he lived. I worried I'd get him into some kind of trouble, through association with me. But Tian Han's so clever, you see, nothing escapes him. He could tell from my momentary hesitation what was troubling me. "This has nothing to do with your wife's old man. It's all about Comrade Ge Ren. Comrade Dou Sizhong will tell you where to find him." I asked if Bingying was still with Ge Ren, and if I should bring her back too. Tian Han frowned and said, Just carry out your mission, and don't ask any more questions. It was cold, so I asked if I could go get some extra clothes. He tugged me back. "It's all prepared for you, even your underpants. The letter for Dou Sizhong is sewn into those underpants." And he gave me special instructions not to mention Ge Ren's name along the way. "Remember this: his code name is Zero, meaning he's round and full. I hope you fulfill your mission roundly and fully." He pointed into a gully. Down below, I could just make out a donkey and a man at the bottom.
Tian Han left. Feeling momentarily dazed, I stood in the snow for a while. The blizzard grew heavier. I waited for Tian Han's figure to vanish completely in the direction of the mound before I set off into the gully. Wind swept off the bald mound, slicing against my face like knives. But when I thought about how I would soon be with Ge Ren, none of that mattered anymore. The fence around the livestock enclosure rattled violently, and would later be wrenched up entirely by the wind. Some birds were startled into the air — I don't know if they were crows or magpies. Magpies have a grudge against me, because I once treated a constipation case with stewed magpie. What is it they say, two for joy? They're supposed to welcome guests, but here they were, jabbering and trying to drive me away. General, at the time, I could not have expected that I'd never return, like a melon taken off its vine. What? When was this? Uh, I truly can't recall. After two months locked up in Back Ditch, my brain wasn't working very well.
Common Knowledge about the Battle of Two Li Mound
According to World War Two: China, on May 1, 1942, the commander-in-chief of the Northern China Area Army, General Yasuji Okamura, led three brigades and two divisions, fifty thousand troops in eight hundred motorcars, tanks, and airplanes, utilizing the military tactics of "crisscrossing nets," "clearing across diagonals," and "repeated joint attacks," plus the strategy of "three alls." Thus began a two-month-long sweep of the Jizhong Plain anti-Japanese forces, as the general attempted to encircle and wipe out the Eighth Route Army, which was, in Okamura's own words, "as slippery as an eel, impossible to lay hands on." From May 16 to June 20, the Japanese Army carried out a sweep within the triangle bounded by Hutuo River to the south, Deshi Road to the north, and the Fuyang River to the west. That's when the Battle of Two Li Mound took place. Later on, the Japanese publication A History of the Great East Asian War would call this "a typical skirmish in the May 'mopping up' campaign."
The Battle of Two Li Mound was first mentioned on October 11, 1942, in a Border War Report essay titled "A River of Iron behind Enemy Lines." The author was Huang Yan, who back in the day set sail on the same ship to Japan for his studies as Ge Ren and the third narrator of this book, Fan Jihuai. In the third paragraph of "A River of Iron behind Enemy Lines," Fan Jihuai writes:
Many fine young Chinese men and women were nobly sacrificed in this anti-purge campaign, giving up their lives for their nation. ... During the flax field battle, my deputy chief of staff, Comrade Zuo Quan, ordered his troops to repeatedly charge at the enemy, attacking the Japanese with everything they had, leading to huge numbers of casualties on the other side, until they were unable to carry on. At midnight they retreated into the flax field, with Deputy Chief of Staff Zuo selflessly leading the pursuit with no regard for his safety. Unfortunately, he was struck by a bullet and became a martyr on Crucifix Peak. In the Taihang foothills, the female fighter Huang Junjue found herself surrounded, and although she struggled valiantly against the enemy's strafing, she was finally cornered and chose to end her life by jumping off a cliff, a fine example of womanhood. During the Battle of Two Li Mound, the cultural instructor Comrade Ge Ren encountered the Japanese while carrying out his duties, and he fearlessly took his attackers down with him, winning glory even in death. ... The People lost a hero, and the resistance lost an able foot soldier. The army mourned him with one voice, swearing that this blood debt would be repaid whatever the cost ...
The mention of Ge Ren as a "cultural instructor" was a little at odds with reality. His actual status at the time was translator for the Marxist-Leninist Institute's Compilation and Translation Unit. Many years later, when Huang Yan brought up the matter again, he took the opportunity to correct this error. This was in his memoir Dreaming Back a Hundred Years, which he wrote after migrating to America.
This was when Ge Ren was working at the Compilation and Translation Unit of the Marxist-Leninist Institute, where he specialized in freely rendered translations, as well as researching the romanization of the Chinese language. You could say he was well-off, because in addition to his wages, he also received fees for his writing work. Because I was his classmate in Japan, he often invited me over, along with two others from his home-town — Tian Han, the deputy chief of the Border Anti-Traitor Division, and border doctor Bai Shengtao — to enjoy some delicious peasant food. ... On one of our expeditions, I discovered that he enjoyed picking the goji berries that grow in between tombstones, which he called "dead children's prayer beads." Ah, how time slips away. It's been more than half a century since the Battle of Two Li Mound. If Ge Ren's tombstone is still standing, it must be covered in dead children's prayer beads by now. He used to say that Chinese farmers had always been reluctant to slaughter cows, which were essential to their livelihood, so he'd once had a notion to replace the mentions of "roast beef and potatoes" in Trotsky's writing with "goji berries and dog meat."
Huang Yan's work also made one thing clear: even half a century later, people continue to believe that Ge Ren died at the Battle of Two Li Mound. It would seem this has passed into common knowledge. In the recently published Prominent Individuals of Modern China, Ge Ren's date of death is still given as 1942.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Coloratura"
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