Reviews / February 2008 (Issue 2)

Never Quite at Home: Leung Ping-kwan's Stories of Personal Disjuncture

by Richard Freadman


Leung Ping-kwan, Islands and Continents, Hong Kong University Press, 2007.  129 pgs.

In the "Afterword" to Islands and Continents Leung Ping-kwan observes that 'In Hong Kong I'm not considered a mainstream writer; but I'm not thought of as totally marginal either.' Like so many of the characters in this volume of short narratives, he belongs, but not entirely.  Hong Kong is home, but the sense of home is always haunted by feelings of marginality, and above all, deracination. The passage just quoted continues, again with reference to his home city: 'Publishing my work is not easy.' As a newcomer to Hong Kong I was very surprised to read this, because the Islands and Continents is a superbly accomplished and impressively varied volume, at once stylish, cutting-edge, dramatic and deeply reflective.

The "Afterword" reflects the volume's blended generic character: whilst some of the narratives are clearly fictional or semi-fictional, some have the ring of autobiographical 'truth'. This generic mobility is the structural correlate of the transcultural mobility which characterizes the central consciousness in many of these pieces. The "Afterword" provides the autobiographical context for this deracinated, questing postmodern consciousness: the family's relocation from the mainland to Hong Kong; Ping-kwan's transition from country to city; his travels, including – very importantly – his life in America; his return to Hong Kong in the 1980s when the handover is under discussion; his reaction to the crushing of the student movement in Beijing in 1989, and more. Such events, and the postmodern conditions they reflect, provide an impression of overall narrative trajectory in the volume, and Leung is superb at evoking the sense of moment and place, direction and digression, movement and momentary stasis.

The uneasy accommodation between direction and digression is continuous with the 'sense of personal disjuncture' which pervades the volume. It is brilliantly explored in several of the stories, most strikingly, perhaps, in the title story, "Islands and Continents".  A fine narrative craftsman like Leung knows that a resonant title should not release all of its metaphoric meanings at once. Right to the end, he continues to unveil his title's implications: there are islands and continents, but also islands within continents; the deracinated consciousness is a journeyer between continents, but also between cultural 'islands', outposts, landscapes of the imagination, some of which have no geographic location at all. This writer who has been so deeply influenced by Magic Realism shows us that time is a kind of topography, with consciousness circling back to islands of memory, flying from experiential continent to continent. His profound understanding of the relationship between time and memory is summed up in the story "Borders": 'the present', he writes, 'constantly alters memory'.  One consequence of this is that personal identity, which depends upon patterns of incremental recollection that culminate in 'me', can never finally settle.  The sense – and indeed the sentiment – of personal identity in these stories is evanescent, multiple, shifting.  To a Western reader like myself, this culture of the self (right down to the occasional reference to 'deconstruction') is familiar. In one sense, I felt at home with Leung's homelessness, readily able to identify with his characters' yearnings, border crossings, colliding feelings about continents and islands, their irregular inner rhythms. In another sense, however, the identity conundrums that this fine writer explores are very specific to Hong Kong and its unique postcolonial condition. A character called Weiwei in the brilliantly entitled "The Dentists on the Avenida de la Revolución", epitomizes qualities that the deracinated Chinese characters in these stories crave; but in so doing she reveals to these postmodern drifters the depths of their own deracination. More poignant still is Weiwei's later fate, a tragic testimony to the fragility of personal authenticity in the contemporary world.

Deeply serious writing can also be funny and immensely enjoyable. Indeed a gifted writer like Leung Ping-kwan can put wit at the service of seriousness and find the salving power of fun amidst existential gloom. He has fine comic touch, as in the case of a writer who is trying to fax a paper he has written about transcendence:

Slowly and tenderly I inserted my manuscript – still warm to the touch, perhaps from the heat of my exertions – into the machine, taking care not to cause her any pain or discomfort. I caressed her dainty, delicate buttons as I gently moved the sheet of paper in and out of the feeder.

Alas, in this story, "Transcendence and the Fax Machine", all does not go well for the writer, despite his exquisite ministrations to the machine. Leung's gentle but ingenious wit lands his character in a limbo-zone between technology and transcendence, his quest for the latter foiled…or is it?

Among her many virtues Weiwei was 'a marvellous story-teller'. So too is Leung Ping-kwan. An eminent academic as well as writer, he has the unusual ability to weave intellectual insights and learning into the fabric of urgent life-narratives. Seldom, if ever, do we feel that he is using fiction or autobiography as occasions for abstract intellectualizing. In these pieces reflection always springs from powerfully evoked needs, cravings, perplexities; and it always 'plays out' in complex human situations. The same is true of Leung’s politics.  He is by no means an apolitical man. Indeed, he reveals that both abroad and in Hong Kong he is prone to political disputation. But for him writing it not principally a political act: 'I don't want to write about the big political issues, just about human nature and people: how they eat, and how they love.' These, the concluding words of Islands and Continents, are judicious but a touch too humble. Leung Ping-kwan does in fact write about some of the great social and political issues of our day. In this as in other respects he is a decidedly cosmopolitan writer. But he knows that when it comes to creative and autobiographical writing the way to politics is through nuanced description of particular lives, and that authentic narrative should begin not with intellectual formulations or political pronouncements, but with basic things like how people 'eat, and how they love'.

Editors' note: Three poems by Leung Ping-kwan (translated by Arthur Leung) are featured in issue #1 of Cha.

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