Dean Chong Liu Chong of the CPC

While many of the foreign professors dressed like students and probably wanted to be students, if not sleep with them, I occasionally wore silk vests and tie clips. Every night I polished the incessant Beijing dust off my shoes. Perhaps I was overcompensating for my thin frame and boyish face. That afternoon, lowering my haunches to the blue couch, I felt like a freshman in big trouble.

“We are terminating your contract,” he said. “Your resident status will be revoked. You have one week to leave the country.”

I said nothing.

Why did I have such a hard egg in my throat? I had nothing to lose. This was not my country. I sometimes hated the place, I missed my sister and my mother, my best friend Mac, and yet I didn’t want to leave China.

K: A Novel, p.38

Sentence of the Day, 3rd Wednesday of May, 2022

The Chinese were making sure they would have graduates who could speak the mother tongue of every economically-relevant country on the planet.

K: A Novel, p. 28

Professor K Ruminates on Everything, Including Anne Frank

Guess there isn’t much to do in Kun Chong Prison, which is why Professor K allows his mind to roam hither and thither.

For instance, he remembers the time a Chinese colleague asked him if he could offer up the names of exceptionally “angry” students. Actually, the colleague put it this way: “Do you have any students I can use?”

Then Professor K’s mind goes back through the mists of time. There was one student. Her name was Queena.

  • Queena reminded me of Anne Frank. Those shadowy eyes, the pointed chin, the puerile lips, the little cogs turning behind the face. As for the iconic photos of our most famous girl in hiding, I remember gazing at them as a boy and wishing Anne were prettier. Even then I knew it was a shameful and stupid thought, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her, that she wasn’t better looking. I couldn’t help wanting to fall in love with her and feeling that my failure to get the hots for Anne was somehow a failure to love the humanity we were all instructed to love.

Self finds this very, very funny. Apologies.

Professor K Ruminates

Sorry, dear blog readers. If you are interested in reading K: A Novel, you might as well know that self is reading at a snail’s pace because she keeps posting quotes (There is something she wants to quote on almost every page). She’s also reading Book # 4 in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, and she alternates between reading about Ruth Galloway or about Professor K.

When K: A Novel opens, Professor K is already in Kun Chong Prison. No idea how long he’s been there, but it’s long enough for him to have an established routine.

He thinks back to the months leading up to his imprisonment:

When did I cross the line?

In my fourth year I started sending students online news articles that were blocked in mainland China, say, a story about peasants in Anhui province getting bumped off their land with paltry compensation, while a Party official received a fat kickback from developers. Nothing new there. Some of my students were curious about international perspectives, so I’d send them an article or two, and they’d reply, “This is so inspiring. Thank you for the articles! I definitely will take it into account.

There is something very droll about the way Professor K recalls his interactions with his students, and it’s clear he was such a naif, so American. Wonder who reported him. Could it have been one of his students? One of those who thanked him for his lectures by saying, “This is so inspiring”?

Stay tuned.

Spray Time in China

This novel is too funny! Which is the farthest thing you would expect from reading the back cover.

Professor K reminisces about teaching at a Beijing university.

  • When it was time to spray the trees with pesticides — and when wasn’t a good time? — a tanker would come through blaring the first few bars of “Happy Birthday” as a warning to all campus residents to close all windows, close all windows, while men wearing coolie hats and cloth masks trained their hoses on the trees, water gushing to the birthday music — but never the second part of “Happy Birthday” where the melody leaps an octave, which made the chiming so much like those feeble ice cream trucks in America that could never quite finish a tune. (K: A Novel, p. 16)

Drollery, Voice

Charged with igniting a political insurrection among his students in a university in Beijing, Kauffman is sent to the notorious Kun Chong Prison, where his existence grows stranger by the hour as he struggles with the weight of his imprisonment and his incurable need to write about it in a place where art is forbidden, and the inmates must act as executioners.

— Back cover blurb, K: A Novel, by Ted O’Connell

Self knows what will keep her reading K: A Novel, it’s the voice. Professor K’s thoughts, his total absence of self-pity, his dry wit, are a joy (This novel better not end with his death! It’s first person, so perhaps not)

Back to Professor K’s ruminations about his fellow prisoner:

  • His given name, Xuo, is nothing I’ve heard before and even the native speakers are confused by it. In lighter moments I call him Barbie Shoes. In darker moments I want the guards to call him away and carry out his sentence, put his eyes into another world so I don’t have to see them in mine.

K: A Novel, p. 7

Taking a wee break from the Ruth Gallowary series (Finished Book #3 last night: Five Stars!) and tackling K: A Novel, which self has been itching to read since she bought it at the AWP Bookfair in March!

From the back cover: Professor Francis Kauffman has unwittingly landed himself in prison where he’s faced with an insurmountable task: execute a fellow inmate.

I know, right? That’s a hell of a one-sentence synopsis.

  • In my darker moments, I look at his eyes — the right pupil is enlarged from some injury — and wonder if he is really that much different from an animal. Because he is the only one besides me who does not read the propaganda books piled on the crate, we assume he cannot read. Let’s say he has an IQ of 70. Through no fault of his own, his abstract reasoning is limited. Nor can he truly enjoy fine art. Would it be a sin to say the man is more animal than me? This is the kind of comment that could get me fired from any number of jobs in civil society, not to mention putting off friends of all stripes. What I mean to say is that if I’m perfectly honest, I can admit that Xu Xuo seems less than human. The blank look in the eyes. He seems to think of nothing. He lies on his cot staring at the ceiling, waiting to be nothing. He is sentenced to death for a crime so terrible as to be unknown in our circle.

Self’s Third Ruth Galloway

Self loves these books. She brought the first two with her to Northern Ireland (from a stack she’d ordered during the pandemic and never had the time to read). She bought two more when she got to Belfast. Now she’s reading The House at Sea’s End.

Ruth Galloway is now a mother. Her daughter, Kate, is a few months old. She is still juggling work (as a forensic archaeologist and university professor) and motherhood, not to mention fending off the fawning Baby Daddy. This scene is very droll. An acquaintance, Tatjana, drops by unexpectedly for a two-week stay:

. . . the baby, not content to remain snoozing picturesquely in the background, is making a bid for centre stage, cooing and emitting high-pitched yelps like a miniature cheerleader. Ruth thinks she is being rather sweet but she is scared to take her attention off Tatjana for too long. So she sits on the floor with Kate, who is propped up by cushions, occasionally handing her a brightly coloured toy which Kate ignores in favour of chewing the TV remote control. Tatjana has, so far, not looked in Kate’s direction once.

Nelson had stayed only a few minutes, long enough for Tatjana to pronounce him ‘interesting,’ which, Ruth discovers, is her highest term of praise.

“How come you are entertaining a policeman in the afternoon, she asked, raising her eyebrows slightly.

The House at the End of the Sea, p. 137

Story # 3, The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories

Self was reading Story # 3, The Merrow of Murlough Bay, when big fat tears started rolling down her cheeks!

This is crazy! She hasn’t cried about a fairy tale since The Little Mermaid!

Each of the stories in this book, at least the three she has read so far, follow the same pattern: Goodness is terrifying, therefore it is spurned. And Talbot is a genius at showing suffering. Maybe it’s the mermaid thing — self doesn’t know. All she knows is that the suffering of the merrow Bright Blue, his “all-on-my-ownness,” his fear, was so real. There was a little bit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go in there, if you must know.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Still The Faerie Thorn, pp. 36 – 37

If you ever find that space at the mauve time of day, stand in front of the intertwined faerie thorn and elder tree behind Donaghy’s cottage, and you will find the Faerie Thorn King and Wife Donaghy dancing.

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