Monday, September 21, 2015

Past Lives in the Present

I hesitated about reading Susan Barker's 'The Incarnations' because her 'Sayonara Bar' and 'The Orientalist and the Ghost' were quite forgettable. Not my kind of genre and provided rather stilted clichéd narratives.

A quick glance at the summary of 'The Incarnations' piqued my interest. Geographically similar, but the plot didn't seem like the author's earlier stories. This book was published last July, but the e-book was strangely not available till this year on 18 August. Downloaded it as a pre-order till it popped up in the Kindle. Hurrah for VPN. (Reviews here, herehere, and here.)

Kinda fun to read about past lives and incarnations while in Zhongdian/Shangri-La where reincarnations are believed. The story's protagonist Wang Jun is in his early 30s, a taxi driver who lives in Beijing with his wife Yida and nine-year-old daughter Echo. Naturally, he had a painful childhood with wayward parents. He seemingly outgrew them and stocially bore the predictable rut of an ill and disabled father and his stepmother. His boring and mundane, if not peaceful life was disrupted by letters falling into his lap detailing his past five lives in a thousand years and oft-complicated relationships and sexuality. The letter-writer claimed to be his 'soulmate'. Like literally. Eioowwww. More like eternal stalker.

The narrative style is a little...strange. Oddly stilted. Like how a word jumps out at me when least expected. For example, in Wang's comment about his long-suffering step-mother Lin Hong who stayed married to his stroke-debilitated father Wang Hu for nineteen years. That word at the end, "fen". It's more Chinese than English- “分”. 'Fen' means 'cent' or 'penny'. 意思是“毫无分文”。Literally without a cent.

She had no say over how much he smoked and drank, or how many whores he fucked and mistresses he financially supported. “I’ll have my lawyer prepare the divorce papers” was Wang Hu’s response to her complaints of marital neglect. He’d made her sign a prenuptial agreement and, should they split, Lin Hong would be left without a fen.

The letters take us through past lives of his 'soulmate'. The events read like a drama serial's run-through of history of China's dynasties and contemporary history, a not-so-subtle comment on Communism, wealth, corruption and privilege. Watch enough Chinese/HongKong/Taiwanese drama serials on reincarnation and soaps, and you'll know how the past lives flow in this narration. To that, it was unsurprising that at the end, through the letters, we learn that Wang Jun's birth mother Li Shuxiang/Yi Moon didn't die, and she was the stalker-soulmate. The story ends with the sudden death of Wang Jun, and the stalker-soulmate transferring her/its attention to Wang Jun's daughter, Echo, who called her 'Watcher'.

Perhaps it's meant to creep the hell out of readers. But it felt more like a statement or comment on how lives are interwoven, and how the belief of past lives affecting one's present relationships (with family members, enemies and friends). 为佛教的轮回— 来世再续今生缘、前因后果、前世债今生还等等。Tales of an unending cycle of debts and vengeance through time and the wheel of karma. The idea of pre-destined relationships and destiny.

"I know you too, Echo," the Watcher says. "I know you better than you know yourself. Recently, I have been dreaming of you." 
Echo is silent. She dreams of the Watcher too. She dreams of the Watcher stalking her through the streets and lurking outside the door of 404. She dreams of the Watcher standing in the corner of her bedroom at night. And now the Watcher has stepped out of her dreams and into waking life, looming over Echo, smelling of old age and homelessness. Though her eyes are shrouded in wrinkles, they are sharp as knives, dissecting Echo with their gaze. 
"The dreams show me who you were in the past," the Watcher says. "Once you were a sorceress, and then a Mongol warrior with a battle-axe-scarred face. Once you were Emperor and ruler of all under heaven, and then a Red Guard called Long March."
Echo shudders. The Watcher is mentally ill, she realizes. Though her eyes are shrewd and intelligent, her mind is deranged. 
"And now in this life," the Watcher says, "you are my grandchild." 
Though the madwoman is lying, Echo recoils at the thought of being her granddaughter.

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