By Yu Hua. Pantheon, $24.
Subtitled Stories of the Hidden China, Yu Hua’s collection reads less like a foray into a walled-off culture than a series of quirky folktales cast in a modern-day setting. Yu writes in a dry, sometimes tongue-in-cheek manner about lives that tilt between the absurd and the perversely cruel. There’s a nameless half-wit who is repeatedly made fun of and tricked by his peers; a man whose marriage troubles lead him to borrow a friend’s homemade porn video; an urchin who steals an apple and is punished by the vendor with a broken hand and imprisonment under the hot sun.
Author of 11 novels and story collections—Boy is his sixth English translation—Yu spools out plots that tease you into expecting some epiphany, or an ironic payoff. Yu seems reluctant to provide either. Only after a few stories (and some disappointment) does Yu’s intent reveal itself: not in profound endings, but in an ability to capture the small, subtle gestures of his characters. It’s in a betrayed wife’s mixed feelings about divorcing her husband (the “wisp of a smile” on her face “like a falling leaf, desolate, lifeless”), and in a young husband’s anxiousness over his bride’s missed period (a struggle Yu describes as an “effort to crack open a stone with drops of rain”). The last is one of the book’s most beautiful lines, and demonstrates Yu’s strength as a writer. Against a backdrop of the bizarre and often inscrutable, he uses the soft patter of language to wash away at least some of the hardened surface, and enduring mystery, of human behavior.