Stories from Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893)

Today’s discussion at the Interacting Book Club at the Bukit Panjang Public Library¬† is one of the most lively and interesting that I’ve experienced, despite the fact that I was nursing a sore throat. The texts are Chinese translations of two of Maupassant’s best-known short stories.

I enjoyed these stories more than the preceeding ones from China, Taiwan, Russian (translated into Chinese) and even Britain (also translated into Chinese). It could be because I like Maupassant’s style of making an otherwise ‘simple’ and ‘ordinary’ plot into something fascinating and intriguing, with exquisite characterisation, much like many of the stories and novels I love, in spite of the fact that Maupassant probably wrote these about a century and a half ago.

I look forward to reading translations of Japanese stories next.

Chinese Short Story : Make Yourself Happy

The title of the story discussed by the Chinese Book Club at the Bukit Panjang Library this week, written by Bi Shumin, is officially translated (either by the publisher or author) as Make Yourself Happy.

From a discussion about the fermentation of wine (from grapes), the author goes on to talk about taking charge of one’s happiness.

Four statements tha leave an indelible mark on me are:

  • Happiness is not inherent from birth;
  • One must seize happiness, by means of learning, waiting, time and hard work;
  • Good luck does not equate happiness;
  • People often lament that life is like a glass of bitter wine; conversely, happiness also has to be brewed.

Two points stand out: the simplicity of the conclusion and the reinforcement of the theme at the end.

Chinese Short Story : The Story of Da Nao

Not having read any Chinese literary works for more than three-and-a-half decades, I recently joined the Chinese Reading Club at Bukit Panjang Public Library. This club was formed in 2003, and most members know each other. I was the newest addition, and perhaps the only one who was completely educated in English. Hence, at my first session, I was quite lost during the discussion.

The subsequent meeting was better. The facilitator (a staff member of the National Library Board) had distributed beforehand copies of the story to be discussed. Hence I was able to read in advance the story a few times with the help of a Chinese dictionary; then I jotted down certain points regarding the plot, character, theme and style (in English) in my note book, so that I would not be so lost during the discussion.

The Story of Da Nao is written (in five sections) by Wang Zengqi (1920-1997), a native of Gaoyou city in Jiangsu, China. Da Nao literally refers to a big pond, and Wang spent one fifth of his article describing its natural beauty and elegance. In the second section, Wang writes about the two villages on each side of Da Nao and again, there are lengthy descriptions of the place and inhabitants on both sides. The description about the inhabitants include their everyday life, customs and culture. The next two sections of the article are yet more lengthy descriptions – one each of a particular family on each side of Da Nao. Only in the fifth (and last) section does Wang write the main plot/story.

At the book club meet, the participants discussed the story animately. I wasn’t able to rattle off my thoughts like the rest, but I was able to follow the discussion though it was apparent that I was the only one who needed to use a dictionary and had to read the story multiple times. I also learnt a lot by listening. I hope that I will be able to contribute my ideas at future sessions.