Friday, July 27, 2007

The Chinese in "Love in the Time of Cholera"

The novel invites me, as the reader, to identify first with Juvenal Urbino, the husband of Fermina Daza, the man who has it all, before seducing me to empathize with Florentina Ariza, the man who lost Fermina to Juvenal but loves her for the rest of his life. Both identifications, so cunningly sequenced, require only imaginative empathy, which I give willingly to get into the skin of characters otherwise so different from myself. So it is with a shock, not of identification, but of recognition, that I read the satiric set-piece on the Poetic Festival, and the Chinese winner:

When a bewildered Fermina Daza read out the name, no one understood it, not only because it was an unusual name but because no one knew for certain what Chinese were called. But it was not necessary to think about it very much, because the victorious Chinese walked from the back of the theater with that celestial smile Chinese wear when they come home early. he had been so sure of victory that he had put on a yellow silk robe, appropriate to the rites of spring in order to accept the prize. He received the eighteen-carat Golden orchid and kissed it with joy in the midst of the thundering jeers of the incredulous. He did not react. He waited in the middle of the stafe, as imperturbable as the apostle of a Divine Providence less dramatic than ours, and as soon as it was quiet he read the winning poem. No one understood him. But when the new round of jeers and whistles was over, an impassive Fermina Daza read it again, in her hoarse, suggestive voice, and amazement reigned after the first line. It was a perfect sonnet in the purest Parnassian tradition, and through it there wafted a breath of inspiration that revealed the involvement of a master hand. The only possible explanation was that one of the great poets had devised the joke in order to ridicule the Poetic Festival, and that the Chinese had been a party to it and was determined to keep the secret until the day he died. The Commerical Daily, our traditional newspaper, tried to save our civic honor with an erudite and rather confused essay concerning the antiquity and cultural influence of the Chinese in the Caribbean, and the right they had earned to participate in Poetic Festivals. The author of the essay did not doubt that the writer of the sonner was in fact who he said he was, and he defended him in a straightforward manner, beginning with the title itself: "All Chinese Are Poets." The instigators of the plot, if there was one rotted in their graves along with the secret. For his part, the Chinese who had won died without confession at an Oriental age and was buried with the Golden orchid in his coffin, but also with the bitterness of never having achieved the only thing he wanted in his life, which was recognition as a poet. On his death, the press recalled the forgotten incident of the Poetic Festival and reprinted the sonnet with a Modernist vignette of fleshy maidens and gold cornucopias, and the guardian angels of poetry took advantage of the opportunity to clarify matters: the sonnet seemed so bad to the younger generation that no one doubt any longer that it had, in fact, been composed by the dead Chinese.

The irony against the different subtle kinds of racism is right on target. Last Friday, after I read at the open-mic at Cornelia Street Cafe, a woman told me that I read very well. I thanked her, but could not help wondering what she meant by it. If she liked the poems, could she not have said that instead? Why evaluate my performance as if there is an invisible tag to her words: for a Chinese?


Rui said...

but you *do* read well.

that said, though, i know what you mean. i remember an incident way back in uni in london, when a tutor told me that i write very well, and i couldn't help but wonder if there was an invisible tag to her words: for an asian?

how to draw the line between an objective awareness of genuine though subtle racism, and hyper-sensitivity?

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi rui,
I'd put the question another way: how to give a compliment without a shadow of condescension?