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Han Shaogong‘s 韩少功 short story ‘Homecoming?’ from 1985 takes up many of the themes of his famous later novel A Dictionary of Maqiao from 1996. Like Dictionary it is about history and language, and their mutual distortion of one another.

In ‘Homecoming?’ a young man comes (back?) to a village he almost remembers and which definitely remembers him, though under a different name than the one he carries now: “All this looked so familiar and yet so strange. It was like looking at a written character: the harder you look at it, the more it looks like a character you know, and yet it doesn’t look like the character you know. Damn! Had I been here before?” (pp. 2)

Through the story the people of the village succeed in making the protagonist recall the violent and suppressed happenings of his past life in the village where he lived as an ‘educated youth’ and maybe killed a man. Indeed it is an act of re-membering of bringing something back into the mind, for before they start calling him by his old name ‘Glasses Ma’, he is completely unaware that he has not always been Huang Zhixian.

In the previous quote Han compares memory and written language: Both are second hand representations of happenings, open to mistake and distortion and thus not to be trusted or equaled with the events themselves.

While the power of language and naming/categorizing (Glassed Ma or Huang Zhixian) over history is taken up on the scene of personal trauma (the killing of a man) in this short story, the same relationship, now on a collective scale, is one of the themes of A Dictionary of Maqiao.

In Dictionary the official historical narrative is distorted and the constructedness of its raw linguistic framework exposed by the local dialect and its (mis-)appropriations of official discourse.

Lastly ‘Homecoming?’ also hints at the distorting yet enlightening power of dialect, as this dialogue between the protagonist and the villager Ai Ba shows: “Do you know me (Does he mean ‘recognize’? Or ‘remember’?) […] I went to chase meat with you once, do you still know? (‘to chase meat’, does it mean ‘hunting’?)” (pp. 6-7)

Is to know to remember (that is to know again)? and is remembering (recalling to a mind that is no longer exactly the same mind) knowledge producing? Certainly the power of language and remembering is so strong that the protagonist has a new (old) identity forced upon himself before he quickly leaves the village again calling for his mother, the only certain historical point of origin, in other words: home.

All quotes from Han, Shaogong (trans. Martha Cheung): Homecoming? and Other Stories. Hong Kong: Renditions Paperbacks, 1992.

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