The Harbinger Online

Safe From Larvae and Rust: Books From Childhood

“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. – Vladimir Nabokov, 1964

 

I was going to write about Arthur Rimbaud. I procrastinated. The deadline for this thing was twos days ago, and I had neither the time nor brainpower to write an entry that does him justice. The editors also have better things to do. So, let me just use my upcoming birthday as a lame excuse and BS it this time, as I did with the Thanksgiving entry. I really need to step up my game. So, uh-hum… I’m turning 17 and am totally reminded me of my childhood and books I read in China (not really)…

Before I abandoned my infinitely rich and magical native Mandarin for a second-rate version of English, I relished reading in Chinese. I was in elementary school and most of the novels I read were Chinese translations of western works. Then I came to the U.S. and unfortunately never got to touch the great classic Chinese novels. But my love of reading still carried over, across an ocean and a language. Each of these novels elicit shivers of nostalgia and gratefulness. These were my very first love affairs with literature:

 

In Search of the Castaways, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne

This was a heck of a trilogy to get through and I loved every page of it. In Twenty Thousand Leagues (《海底两万里》), three biologists are held captive by Captain Nemo in his highly advanced secret submarine, the Nautilus. The captives then went on to sail with Nemo around the entire oceans, witnessing a giant squid fighting a sperm whale, visiting the sunken remains of Atlantis and having an underwater funeral for a dead crew member. It’s a mesmerizing, epic adventure in the depths of the sea with abundant, scientifically accurate descriptions of fascinating marine creatures.

The Mysterious Island (《神秘岛》) is the crossover sequel. It tells a completely different story of five Americans who are stranded on an uninhabited island. They sustain themselves by finding food, building shelter, making fire and even glass and pottery. Captain Nemo is revealed at the end, ported in a secret cove on the island in his submarine. He is now an old man and on his deathbed, and tells the story of his origin.

In Search of the Castaways (《格兰特船长的儿女》) is the first novel in the series… ok, first of all, it’s the last novel I ever read in Chinese. I was rereading it during my flight to the U.S. I vividly remember taking it out eagerly at the airports in Dalian and Seoul, while waiting to switch planes. I was still savoring it during my first few months in the U.S. It’s now gathering dust in my basement. When I open it up, it’s as if an opaque film of myopia had formed on the pages, making me scrutinize the words to grasp their full meanings. Chinese is slipping away from me by the minute. Dang it, I’m all sad and stuff now, it’s… never mind.

As for plot, it’s a classic message-in-a-bottle story. A bottle containing the fragments of a letter copied three times in different languages is discovered in a shark’s stomach. The letters are confirmed to be written by Captain Grant of the Britannica, stranded at sea. An expedition is then assembled to search for the lost captain, having to piece together his exact whereabouts from fragments of the trilingual letter. Gosh, I need to reread these.

 

The Adventures of Pinocchio (《木偶奇遇记》) by Carlo Collodi

As much as I love the Disney movie, nothing can beat the original, unabridged novel. I safely ignored the moral message, since I didn’t want to be a good boy. What grasped me as a child and even now is the fantasy, coming-of-age, adventure and the almost surreal magic.

The original is dark and violent, with much cruelty and punishment. In a series of trials and temptations, Pinocchio is hanged, goes to jail and is cheated of his gold coins. He almost gets fried, becomes a donkey, then had his donkey skin eaten off by fish and finally gets swallowed by a giant dogfish. And after every redemption from a dire situation, he falls again for temptation. But hope is ever-present, in the form of the loving fairy with the turquoise hair. The ending is infinitely fulfilling; Pinocchio finally comes of age and turns into a real boy through numerous struggles. It gave me hope as a child. But I didn’t turn out too well, so I guess it doesn’t matter.

So, sorry for this lame excuse of an entry. I swear there won’t be any more personal stories about China.

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