Jonathan Tel is known for his successful 2003 novel, FREUD’S ALPHABET, and his previous short story collection, ARAFAT’S ELEPHANT. The “possibilities” in Beijing --- and with a conceivable stretch, any city in the world --- are lessons to be learned. China, arguably, is the seat of the largest economic and cultural shift in history. THE BEIJING OF POSSIBILITIES captures the essence of that rapid change in a collection of endearing short stories, set in a country where storytelling is an art form.
The first short story, “Year of the Gorilla,” takes place in the spring of 2008. “Gorillagram” was a fad, in which a “singing telegram” of sorts was delivered by a pitifully paid immigrant worker in a gorilla costume. Two months before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, quasi-capitalists find themselves with sudden wealth. “A businesswoman walked by, a red handbag swinging from her shoulder. Suddenly [the Gorillagram man] heard a roar and a Honda moped was accelerating past, two men on it. The passenger grabbed the handbag!” The Gorilla-man didn’t monkey around. He attacked the two moped thieves, dusted off the red purse and returned it to the lady. A cell phone with video capabilities captured the gallant crime thwart. The Internet and newspapers spread word of the Gorilla Hero. Recipients of Gorillagrams now assumed he was a celebrity, and his tips evaporated like mist in the desert.
Confused by a rash of crimes leading up to the Olympics, police arrest the poor man and make him a laughingstock. Police ask, “So, Gorilla, is it true that you’re opposed to the development of capitalist enterprise in China?” The Gorillagram fad ran its course; bipedal capitalists feared arrest, when the government wanted to rid Beijing of all “foreigners” --- anyone who does not speak the same regional dialect from one of approximately 50 in China. Lesson to be learned: Government employees unversed in capitalism prevent others from becoming capitalists.
Red-purse thieves notwithstanding, with China’s history of honesty and respect for elders, Tel’s second tale is more complex. Newlyweds find hidden away in the apartment they’ve just acquired a canister filled with things only of sentimental value --- except for an expensive jade spoon. With intentions of honesty and respect, they struggle to find the rightful owner. Years of communism prevent the aged owner from claiming anything of value. The couple knows she is the owner and mails the contents. Return to sender, with a note that the spoon did not belong to her; if it did, she had no knowledge of it. Ay, there’s the rub. One member of the couple had left out the spoon, thinking it would not be missed after 40 years. Guilt causes everything to go back, along with money the couple cannot spare. Like an albatross, it keeps coming back, until the guilt-ridden couple spends a month’s income to appease their guilty consciences. Consciences appeased, the money and spoon finally do not return. Had the value of honesty held true, the jade spoon would have come back the first time for the couple to keep. Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive. (Not Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott in Marmion, 1808.)
China’s one-child and “delayed generation” policies are essential to prevent a drain on natural resources and hyper-population, and is a point of contention amongst Western nations. China still requires couples to have only one child, and each couple is encouraged to wait until at least age 25 to produce their one child. “A married couple without an heir, what are they but living ghosts? They had tried for five years already without success. So they decided to buy a child. A boy would be beyond their means, but a girl...people were practically giving them away.” Males in China are far overrated; ask any woman. Which male came to be without a woman? Not unlike America in the 1950s, with the mantra of Keep them barefoot and pregnant (though the term was coined in 1963), women in China are still often considered to be less than equals. Fortunately, progress is being made. The Internet has informed members of China’s majority gender what happened to John Wayne Bobbit.
This collection of short stories often touches on reproduction, a subject, like politics, that is difficult for many Chinese nationals to openly discuss. Set judgments and preconceptions aside to enjoy what is being revealed. Try to imagine living an entire life with government controlling thoughts and actions --- to the point of having children, even farmers who need children as farmhands, as was the case in agricultural America in the 1930s. Then try to imagine sudden freedom. Well, quasi-freedom. Many residents of the former USSR went through a similar awakening. “Tank Man” in 1989 stood alone in front of a tank at the center of Tiananmen Square, defying the military to take on an unarmed, lone individual. One person can make a difference. The government backed down, and the course of China was changed forever. Alas, many Americans unaccustomed to any type of control (self or otherwise) choose to escape from reality, with a variety of excesses.
The title short story, “The Beijing of Possibilities,” examines the subject of reproduction and self-worth. “She’s going to have a baby. It’s due any day now. She’s a virgin, but even so. She’s twenty-nine and lives with her father, a fisherman, in a village in Hainan. She no catch.... This is how: A woman from a nearby village moved to Beijing and found a job as a shelf stacker and fell in love. She married her sweetheart, a native Beijinger; she legalized her status; she became pregnant. The two of them are living in one room --- they’re in no position to care for a child, but they don’t want an abortion either. So here’s the arrangement: The woman back in Hainan is to be the foster mother. She’ll do everything a real mother does, almost, and she’ll be paid an allowance as well. Maybe in five or ten years’ time, the biological parents will demand the child back.” The Hainan villager goes on to become against her will a Beijinger and an outcast in that society. Someone from her own village pauses to speak with her briefly and treats her kindly, and it’s left up to the reader to determine if she achieves the goal of self-valuation.
Superstitions are touched upon. There is a reason Olympic opening ceremonies began at 8:00 P.M. on 08/08/08. The lucky number eight, especially eight times over, rules supreme, while 14 is China’s equivalent of the Western world’s triskaidekaphobia. Phone numbers have eight digits instead of our customary seven. In a country unaccustomed to excesses, the greeting Have you eaten? replaces How do you do?
This collection is filled with witticisms: A gem cannot be polished without friction. You cannot expect both ends of a sugarcane to be as sweet. One story examines acceptance of “arranged marriages” in a philosophical tale about a man whose employment is secured by a corporate headhunter. He ponders that circumstances were meant to be, he and his company worked together as a team. He then considers that if his parents’ marriage had not been arranged --- and those of his forebearers --- then he would not have come to be, to work at The Double-Happiness Ball Bearing Factory. But, alas, some sections are tedious, or perhaps misunderstood. A clever pun in America may mean little in England, though the same language (more or less) is spoken. Taking these tales with a grain of salt --- which means nothing in China --- may help to understand that innuendo speaks volumes but says little.
Chong Qing is the world’s largest city, with more than 33 million people. China is a complex quasi-continent, with a quarter of the world’s population, and the same land mass as all countries in Europe --- and triple the number of languages. Given huge distances, dialects take on characteristics of different languages. Ni hao (hello or how are you) in Beijing becomes zha xi de lek (phonetic: zah-z-d-lek) in the Tibet regional dialect. Jonathan Tel successfully incorporates the philosophies of China’s many regions in this Sino version of Aesop’s Fables.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy on December 22, 2010