Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
By Yiyun Li
ISBN: 000719663-6
Publishers: Harper Perennial/2006
Pages: 203

I was kind of browsing and saw this book. The title attracted me even though I had not heard of Yiyun Li. Reading the back cover, I simply could not put it back. I bought it and finished all the ten short stories at one go.

A thousand years of good prayers portrays a discerning look at life in contemporary China and its recent past. Most of the stories take place in a rural and small town China labouring under economic change and the move to a more free-market economy. All the ten stories delves into the ruin of the Cultural Revolution on the modern Chinese. The writing is immaculate, vivid - yet at times deeply unsettling. The stories are filled with tales of family discord and relationships, of tragic relatives, divorced and suicidal parents, adopted children, gay sons, unfaithful spouses, jilted lovers, unborn babies, and loveless marriages.

'Extra' presents the dismal predicament of Granny Lin, an elderly widow without a pension, whose job as a maid at a boarding school outside Beijing leads to a strange friendship with one of her young charges. In the final scene, she is back on the street, jobless, her bag of clothing stolen, and holding nothing more than her life's small fortune in her lunch pail.

In ‘Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way’, a recluse, Mr. Pang, deplored by his work colleagues as being 'a dog son of the evil landlord class' ' still appears daily at a job where he is no longer paid, and spends his home life counting grains of rice on his chopsticks.

The fatherless boy of 'Immortality,' his face resembling Chairman Mao, so that he is chosen to be the dictator's imitator after Mao's death, falls from favour in due course. In the final scene, we are left with the image of a demented Mao look-alike who has castrated himself at his mother's tomb.

In the title story, Li, Mr. Shi comes to a Midwestern American town from China to visit his daughter. In a local park, he meets and makes friends with an elderly Iranian woman whom he calls Madam, even though neither speaks much English and they can hardly understand one another. "That we get to meet and talk to each other...must have taken a long time of good prayers to get us here," he explains an old proverb to her in Chinese. “It takes three thousand years of prayers to place your head side by side with your loved ones on the pillow. For father and daughter? A thousand years, maybe.” One profound statement.

Most of Li's stories are usual narratives, but one, ‘Persimmons,’ is out of that mould. Told almost entirely through dialogue, a group of villagers slowly tell the tale of a young boy's drowning and his father's ineffective efforts to obtain justice that result in mass murder. The truth unfolds slowly, but the villagers' attitudes are resigned, as if no other outcome had ever been possible.

In ‘Love in the Marketplace’ a schoolteacher obsessed with the film Casablanca, is the victim of a broken promise. A stranger who arrives in the market place offers to slash his arm with a knife for money is the only person who understands her deep anguish and is ready to honour his word.

’The Prince of Nebraska’ is the story of an intricate love triangle. Sasha is pregnant and on her way to an abortion clinic in Chicago seeks Boshen's help. Both of them are involved with the inscrutable Yang, an out of favour Chinese Opera singer. An unusual arrangement is worked out between them for a love that does not fit neatly into the box of a conventional relationship.

For this book, Yiyun Li was presented with the first ever Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, now the world's richest short story prize. It has also won "The Guardian First Book Award."


Teddy Rose said...

Great review! I just added it to my TBR. I hope my library has it!