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November 13, 1989 - Image 10

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1989-11-13

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Page 10- The Michigan Daily- Monday, November 13, 1989

The Question of Hu
by Jonathan D. Spence
Vintage paper/$8.95,
"Why have I been locked up?"
John Hu asks from an insane asylum
in Charenton (near Paris) in 1725.
That indeed is the titular inquiry in
The Question of Hu, Jonathan D.
Spence's historical account of Hu's
journey to Europe as a text copier
for a Jesuit priest, Father Jean-Fran-
cois Foucquet.
Why should we want to know
about Hu? The author tells us that
"the Chinese biographical tradition
is rich in the materials it has pre-

happy because he's incapable of
"performing my worship, entering
the church, and hearing the Mass,"
we have no other reason for Hu's
questionable stunts.
Hu starts out the journey by
telling Foucquet that a vision filled
with angels told him it was Hu's
special task to seek out the Emperor
of China and introduce him to Chris-
tianity. Hu thinks the task will not
be hard. When staying at the a senior
government officer's home in Port
Louis, Hu is an ungracious guest,
complaining that the room is stuffy
and the bed too high. Not only does
he sleep with the mattress on the
floor, he also inexplicably refuses to
eat with the housekeeper. Hu steals a
horse, and upon being scolded, he
questions, "Why, if a horse is being
left unused, may someone else not
use it?" When riding in a carriage.
Hu incessantly jumps off and runs to
the hedgerows, seizes handfuls of
unknown fruit and crams them into
his mouth. While eating at an Inn,
Hu will help himself in the kitchen,
taking anything he fancies from the
tables and cupboards. Unable to tame
or reason with Hu, Foucquet has
him locked up.
Spence tell the story through
Foucquet's account of the journey.
This is the weakness in this meticu-
lously researched and elegantly writ-
ten narration. An acclaimed professor
and non-fiction writer from Yale,
Spence knows his subject, but The
Question of Hu comes out dry. We
only see the superficial side of Hu;
his bizarre antics somehow mirror
his unhappy state of mind that is
still left a mystery to the reader. The
question of Hu ultimately remains
uncompelling and unanswered.
-Carolyn Pajor
Voices From The Plains
by Gianni Celati
Serpent's Tail/$10.95
Despite Roland Barthes pro-
nouncing the "death of the Author"
in the mid-'70s, most of us are still
hung up on the notion of the author

as Romantic artist/God and as the
single omniscient creator of a work.
Dissecting a book to find the
"hidden meaning" and "artistic
spirit" of the writer should have
become a superfluous practice by
now; what's more relevant is the
reader's relation to the text, and that
the words we read emerge from
social and economic realities, not
just the imperial self of an artiste.
Italo Calvino is one of the few
fiction writers who have dealt with
these fundamental issues without
being dry, academic, and plain
boring.
Described -as the "heir to
Calvino" by The New York Times,
Gianni Celati also reflects on the act
of writing, and the "prison-house of
language" that cannot quite make
sense of the absurd world we live in.
Voices From The Plains (Narratori
delle Pianure) is a collection of very
short stories about life in the Po river
valley in Italy. Celati dedicates the
book to "those who told me stories,
many of which are transcribed here."
As the writer, he attempts to efface
his authorial presence from the
stories; so many of the these tales
begin with: "I have a heard a story
about...', "This is the story of..." or
"I air going to tell you the story
of..." In order to further dissolve his
authorial voice from the text, Celati
deliberately uses a simple
descriptive mode of writing that
lacks the tyranny of the adjective.
These tales are told by the voices on
the plains as much as by Celati
himself.
Many of these quirky and gloomy
stories dwell on words and their in-
ability to completely grasp experi-
ence. "A parable for the disen-
chanted" is about a young man
moved to writing after reading Knut
Hlamsun. He writes prolifically but
isn't satisfied with any of it. Ulti-
mately, he writes a letter to his girl-
friend, telling her how impossible it
is to describe experience because
"words are made of a different sub-
stance." In "the life of an unknown
storyteller," a man writes for 40

years but has no luck in getting pub-
lished. His stories are "too sedate,
sentimental and polite," and finally
he's so unused to speaking that he
can barely utter words. Again and
again in Celati's stories, language is
shown to be inadequate. The printer
in "what makes the world go on"
tries to answer this central question
by reading everything he can get his
hands on: advertisements, street
signs, shop window signs. He won-
ders why "the number of words to
read everywhere was always grow-
ing." Disillusioned, he gives up the
search to spend the rest of his time
watching soccer matches on televi-
sion.
The most tragic story of language
is "a scholar's idea of happy end-
ings," in which a man spends his en-
tire life rewriting the ending of every
story, novel, or epic poem. He dies
after his greatest accomplishment,
the last line of a Russian novel. By
changing just three words "he trans-
formed a tragedy into a satisfactory
resolution of life's problems."
There's a whiff of Gabriel Garcia
Marquez's magic realism in Celati's
writing. There's the story of a lonely
woman who commits suicide after
taping over every orifice that might
be polluted by the outside world. In
"the commuter children who got
lost," a boy and a girl come to the
conclusion that all parents are bor-
ing. At weekends they go to the big
city to find an adult who isn't bor-
ing, but they never succeed.
Voices From The Plains touches
on the pathos of ordinary lives.
Beautiful and gloomy, painful and
poignant, its stories are as wispy and
fragile as life for most of us. Calvino

...
',.

.
u t

served on scholars and statesmen,
philosophers and poets and men of
unusual moral rectitude," yet Hu is
none of these. He is a devout
Catholic who had little money and
relatives, a perfunctory education and
no skills except the copying of other
people's texts. The Question of Hu,
then, narrates what is really a rub-
bing of two cultures and their differ-
ent ideas of insanity and faith.
Throughout the journey, Hu is
unhappy. He complains that he is
not being paid for copying Fouc-
quet's text, and yet he is barely
working. And until the end of the
book, where we learn that Hu is un-

himself wrote that this book
"revolves around representations of
the visible world and, more
significantly, around that profound
shift from an inner toward an outer
world which seems to me to be the

change that most characterizes the-
'80s." Reading Voices From The
Plains is as disorienting, as moving,
and as sad as staring at a Warhol
silkscreen print for too long.
-Nabeel Zuberi

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