Lin Hong, tidying Li Hanlin’s drawers, came upon an old envelope, neatly folded. When she opened it, she found another envelope inside, folded just as neatly. Inside this envelope she found another folded envelope, and in that she found the key.
I’m afraid of this story. I’ve been fretting over it for days, unsure what to do with it. And it’s all Betsy’s fault.
Betsy (at The Mookse and the Gripes, that Betsy) has written a post that incorporates Yu Hua’s recent non-fiction book China in Ten Words (a book I now want to read), the TNY cover for this issue, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Chairman Mao in a seamless analysis of political allusions in literature and an allegorical interpretation of this story. And what do I bring to the conversation?
Not much: I’m still stuck on, Why did Li Hanlin put the key inside three envelopes, then leave it lying in a drawer? And why was Lin Hong tidying his drawers in the first place?
At first, I thought of this as a marriage story in three parts: the discovery, the investigation, and the battle. But the more I re-read it, the more I think it’s all discovery. Or maybe, all investigation. Then again, it could be all battle.
I was quite mesmerized by the discovery.
It was an ordinary aluminum key, unremarkable in every way, so why would Li Hanlin store it inside three envelopes? Lin Hong studied the key in her hand and noticed that it was a little grimy; clearly it had been in use for quite some time.… it had nothing to do with this home of theirs, which meant that… it was an interloper.
At this point, I wasn’t sure who these two people were (turns out they’re a married couple) so that added to my confusion, but Lin Hong’s point remains (and thus begins my obsession): why would someone go to the trouble to put a key in three envelopes, then plop the thing in an accessible desk drawer? And why would a wife be tidying her husband’s drawers? In Paragraph 2, there’s already an interesting interpersonal dynamic, though we aren’t sure who the people are quite yet.
The investigation was a bit less interesting to me, though it led Lin Hong to a startling realization: she has no friends. She used to have friends, but Li Hanlin’s friends, and his friends’ wives, crowded them out of her life. How many women have been in this situation. How many women have been left behind when a friend marries.
It’s the battle, however, where things get really interesting.
He was going around the house with his tail tucked between his legs, as though he were punishing himself. The problem was that this kind of punishment punished her as well. She couldn’t shed the tears she wanted to shed, couldn’t yell the things she wanted to yell. A fiery rage consumed her, but it could only smolder in her heart.… What she wanted now was a huge row.
A long time ago, I read something about receiving angry phone calls from customers: if, as the recipient of a complaint on behalf of a company, you immediately castigate yourself for the mistake and exclaim over the stupidity of your error and the outrageous disturbance it has caused for the customer, the angry customer will most likely begin comforting you and reassuring you that it is not that big a deal. The take-home was something like this: “In a disagreement, only one person can be angry at a time.” I found that, while it didn’t always work, it often did help tone down angry clients (probably because it’s so unusual in America to deal with someone who acknowledges a mistake at all). This story shows it doesn’t survive the translation to domestic life.
Speaking of translation, I’m always nervous about stories in translation; is it possible to move a story from one side of the world to another without losing something? I still remember the lesson I learned from “An Anonymous Island,” a story by Yi Mun-Yol that came with a very enlightening interview with the translator, Heinz Insu Fenkl. This story also comes with a Page-Turner interview, of course, but with the author rather than translator Allan Barr; an author interview is a good thing, of course – an excellent thing – but does that mean the translation was straightforward? Can any translation be straightforward?
Since I’m (regrettably) not Betsy, I approached it as a very human story: a woman stops reacting to the situation at hand, and starts reacting to her husband’s reaction (“… He rejected the punishment she had selected for him”). It’s all tangled up with the friends issue; it’s a re-discovered friend who advises Lin Hong on what punishment to select. And it’s tangled up with QingQing, the woman with whom Li Hanlin is not really having an affair, at least not sexually, but is clearly more than friends. And then there’s that key: why would he leave a key, wrapped in three envelopes, in a drawer where Lin Hong could find it? And why was she fiddling in the drawer to begin with?