excerpt from The Drunkard


I.

Another rainy day descends on my rusting sentiments. My thoughts chase after one and another in wreaths of smoke. Gently opening a window, I see raindrops blinking on a branch. The drips trickle down the leaves like the flowing footsteps of a dancer. I turn on the radio and hear the summons of God. Probably it’s time to go out. In a bar, a waiter in white is serving wine. In front of me I see a pair of sparkling eyes. (I should invent a character based on her and put her in a cheap novel. She is the mistress of the kung fu master Wong Fei-hung. She’s up on a skyscraper in Queen’s Road, levitating, hanging upside down, peeping at the secretary sitting on Wong’s lap.) My thoughts roam around the curling smoke. The smoke vanishes. A bottle of blues and a cube of empty air in the corner. Between two glasses of brandy grows a twining intimacy. Time never wearies. The minute hand pursues the hour hand in despair. Happiness is like a wanderer, hovering behind the equal sign of an equation.

Music marches into my ears. A solid smile. It emerged at dusk yesterday, and again today. Lies are white because they are lies. Misery in the heart is happiness on the face. Happiness and misery do not seem to be different things.

— Vodka, she says.

— Why are you drinking spirits? I ask.

— To melt the solid smile, she replies.

I order two vodkas. (This woman has an ever drunken belly, like mine.)

My eyes wander about the kaleidoscope of light and shade. Philosophers search for treasure within the human body, but in vain. Music marches into my ears. Smoke gets in your eyes. There is something magnetic about the way black people sing. If James Dean were alive, would he have given up car racing and be dancing the twist instead?

— Do you always come and drink alone? She asks.

— Yes.

— To drown the pain of memory?

— To drown the happiness.

That solid smile swims in the wine glass like an ice cube. No question about it, she is laughing at my immaturity.

Not all hunters are brave, especially in a neon jungle. The innocence of youth has long become a rarity.

One glass. Two glasses. Three glasses. Four glasses. Five glasses.

I am drunk. Nothing but solid smiles in my mind.

I have a lot of peculiar dreams. I dream of an astronaut singing on Venus. I dream of a poker king fumbling around in a murky dancehall: ‘fingers only’. I dream of a pack of dogs crunching bones. I dream of Lin Daiyu making plastic flowers in a factory. I dream of Hong Kong sinking into the sea. I dream of her dreaming of me in my dream.

I dream of winning a lottery

I throw away my pen and go into a fingers-only dancehall in Wan Chai wearing an immaculately pressed suit I send for all the dance girls to sit at my table I purchase pride

Then I buy a new six-storey building

I live on one storey and lease all the rest out

I never have to make up to the landlord or worry the owner will in case raise the rent

Then I drive my car and go to see Chiu Chiyiu

Chiu Chiyiu is a mean fellow

When I was poor I begged him to lend me twenty dollars He curled his lip and turned his face away

Now I am rich

I throw my money in his face

Then I drive my car and go to see Lily Chang

Lily Chang is a snob

When I was poor I implored her to love me She curled her lip and turned her face away

Now I am rich

I throw my money in her face

Then I drive my car and go to see Chin Shifu

Chin Shifu is the owner of a publishing house

When I was poor I begged him to publish my novel He curled his lip and turned his face away

Now I am rich

I throw my money in his face

Then I drive my car along Queen’s Road because I want people to gaze at me enviously

Then I sober up

Wide awake. My head aches. I squint at this woman who’s deep in sleep and realize how unbeautiful she is. Not just unbeautiful. Very ugly. Her hair is a mess. A lot of it has fallen on the pillow. Her eyebrows are long and thinning. The two penciled eyebrows are cut in half after her tossing and turning in sleep all night. Her skin is rough, with rather large open pores. (When I saw her in the restaurant last night, her skin seemed so snowy and delicate. Why is it so different now? Is it because the light was too dim, her face was too heavily powdered, and I was too drunk? Or maybe… Anyway it looks completely different now.) Her nose has a foreign look about it. Actually, her nose is the only interesting part of her face. There are still patches of rouge on her lips. Just like discolored cherries soaked in a can. But this is not the worst. The ugliest is the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes. A few faint lines. All she can do is to powder them over. She is not young anymore. Probably in her forties. But in an obscure light, painted with powder and rouge, admired by drunken eyes, she is still a flower in bloom.

She is fast asleep. From time to time she twitches the corner of her mouth in hazy consciousness. I cannot tell what she is dreaming of. But I am sure she is dreaming. She turns around and breathes out. Foul breath. It makes me want to vomit. (If I had not been so drunk last night, I would never have slept with this woman.) I roll off the bed, wash and dress, and stuff half of my pay from the newspaper into her bag. I don’t get paid much, but I decide to be generous this time because I am wide awake. I often pity myself when I am sober. But I pity her more. As I leave the hotel, the first thing that hits my mind is drink. I buy a bottle of whisky from a store, and go back. I’d better not drink. I still have two installments of martial arts fiction to write for two newspapers. I spread a sheet of writing paper on the table, feeling bad about it. (I have been writing these two wuxia novels for over a year. Debasing my talent to write such stories for living is bad enough. What is even worse is that readers are actually willing to enter the author’s imaginary realm, and they never tire of it.) I laugh. I pull off the bottle cap and pour myself a glass of whisky. (If I could, I would write a novella, entitled Hemingway in Hong Kong. Hemingway is a destitute man of letters, who staves off hunger every day with bread soaked in syrup. Steeling himself, refining himself for his art. He finishes A Farewell to Arms and attempts fruitlessly to sell the novel to a publisher. But they want Hemingway to write martial arts novels to satisfy readers. They promise that he can make it big and he’ll never have to fill his stomach with bread and syrup again. Hemingway refuses. They say he is a fool. He goes home and continues writing and writing. He finishes For Whom the Bell Tolls, and hasn’t a penny to buy bread. The landlady kicks him out and rents his bed to a hawker who sells Chinese patent cures for impotence on the street in Shaukeiwan. Hemingway still does not wake up to reality and endeavors to sell his new novel, only to be disappointed. He pawns his last down coat buy a couple of meals and some writing paper and goes on writing under the stairs of a building. The weather turns cold but his desire for writing is burning in his heart. One morning a dance girl living on the second floor comes home. Finding a dead body lying under the stairs she screams. Passers-by crowd around the body but not a single person recognizes him. The police come and discover that he is clutching a manuscript. The title is The Old Man and the Sea.) This is an interesting idea. I laugh. I take a swig of whisky and start working on my martial arts novel. (Yesterday I made up a bit when Taoist Celeste is revenging his dear disciple Rain Canopy, yet his deadly foe Steel Augur is miles away. How should I carry on with the story?) I raise my glass and drink the rest at one gulp. (Oh I’ve got it! Taoist Celeste picks up a bamboo chopstick in his fingers, blows on it and casts it in the air. The chopstick whizzes through a mountain like an arrow and hits Steel Augur exactly on his temple.)

One glass. Two glasses. Three glasses. Four glasses.

I put down my pen. It’s still raining outside. Like glass rods piercing the concrete. I wish I could somehow see that distant smile through the veil of crystal rain. Thousands of horses gallop on the ridge of a building facing onto the street. The north wind yawns.

Two circles. One is a pale purple 36. The other is a dark green 22.

The feelings mix in my wine glass. The shapes of the numbers make small talks. The autumn sun gives a crazy laugh. 36 turns into 44.

Sometimes above is below. Sometimes below is above. Viewing from the top or the bottom is all the same. Add one circle is to another circle. Of course that doesn’t make two separate circles.

36 is not at all equal to 36. The one above has two circles. The one below only has one.

Autumn strolls around the contours of 8. The sun likes the day. The moon also likes the day. But the night is never lonely. Whoever lies on the bed of memory because someone is good at toying with pretence.

In the days when I danced with number 8, I have not cut my wisdom teeth. Misery is happiness. It will all fade away.

The autumn wind has come late. Beads of sweat.

I must declare war on myself in the hope of conquering the fears in my heart. In the depths of my soul, it is raining.

(Poets are busy debating tradition. Actually, the answer is obvious.)

(Take The Story of the Stone as an example.)

(Stone is the greatest work of classical Chinese literature. There is no question about it.)

(In the eyes of today’s people, Stone is a traditional work.)

(But what was the situation at that time? What were the style and tradition of novel writing two hundred years ago? If Cao Xueqin had intended to stick to the way people wrote, he would never have written such a brilliant novel as Stone.)

(If Cao Xueqin had stuck to traditional ways of writing, Liu Quanfu would never have written in his postscript six years after acquiring the Jiaxu manuscript: Stone does not just break fresh ground as a novel, it is another way of writing all together…)

(But in the eyes of today’s people, Stone is a traditional work.)

(If Cao Xueqin had stuck to traditional ways of writing, Stone would not have been distorted by Liang Gongchen and his ilk.)

(But in the eyes of today’s people, Stone is a traditional work.)

(Why don’t we listen to Cao Xueqin’s own soliloquy: ‘Come, your reverence, must you be so obtuse? All the romances ever written have and artificial period setting — Hand or Tang for the most part. In refusing to make use of that stale of convention and telling my Story of the Stone exactly as it occurred, it seems to me that, far depriving it of anything, I have given it a freshness these other books do not have…’)

(Cao Xueqin was against traditional ways of writing. There is no question about it.)

(He was not satisfied with ‘those dreary stereotypes with their volume after volume all pitched on the same note and their different characters undistinguishable…’)

(T.S. Eliot once said, ‘Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged.

(So… when Rousseau was writing his Confessions, Cao Xueqin was already employing realism in Stone. That was after thirty years before Goethe finished Faust. Forty years before Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published. Eighty years before Gogol’s <Dead Souls. A hundred years before Turgenev’s Father and Sons and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. A hundred and ten years before Tolstoy’s War and Peace… Forget it! Why am I bothering with all of this? Why not just drink?)

One glass. Two glasses. Three glasses.

I finish the first glass. Someone knocks on the door. It’s the landlady. She’s asking me when I am going to pay the rent.

I finish the second glass. Someone knocks on the door. It’s the errand boy from the newspaper. He’s asking me why I haven’t sent the next installment..

I finish the third glass. Someone knocks on the door. It’s a fat flabby middle-aged woman. She asks me why I took the apple her son has taken a bite out of, when I came home this morning.

(Cao Xueqin was a drunkard too. It was an arduous time. He and Dun Cheng were meeting at the Pagoda Tree Garden. It was a biting cold day. Dun Cheng unfastened his sword and exchanged it for wine. The two of them had a good drink. In Red Ink Stone’s notes, Cao Xueqin died on the Eve of 1763. Is it possible that Cao Xueqin had a heart condition, that he drowned his sorrow in drink and died of a sudden heart attack? )

(Drink is not a good thing. I should give it up…probably.)


By Liu Yi-Chang
translated, from the Chinese, by Charlotte Yiu


 
Charlotte Yiu just finished her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, majoring in translation. She is currently translating the novel, 酒徒 (The Drunkard) by Liu Yi-Chang into English. The book will be published in August 2014.

Liu Yi-Chang (1918-) is a writer from Hong Kong, famous for his stream of consciousness novellas.