Excerpt

Owlish 

Dorothy Tse (trans. Natascha Bruce)

June 8, 2023 
The following is from Dorothy Tse's Owlish. Tse is a Hong Kong writer who has received the Hong Kong Book Prize, the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature, and Taiwan’s Unitas New Fiction Writers’ Award. Her first book in English, Snow and Shadow (translated by Nicky Harman), was long-listed for the Best Translated Book Award. She is the co-founder of the literary journal Fleurs des Lettres.

The moment it all started can be traced back to Professor Q’s fiftieth birthday. He was strolling along an antiques market on Valeria Island when a peculiar, birdlike expression flitted across his face. No one with him at the time had noticed, but his palms were instantly sweaty and his whole body began to tremble.

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The early autumn leaves were dry and wilting, just starting to curl in on themselves. Professor Q and his companions had been out clam-digging and were draped in lacklustre windbreakers, their hair full of the smell of salt. For the past few years they had been getting together at least once a month, going for hikes in the winding Nevers mountain ranges, or for walks along its meandering coastline, or, as on this particular day, on boat trips to its tiny outlying islands and then back again, to Valeria Island city centre. Out on the water that morning, the head-on wind had engulfed them the same way the fog smothered the view, erasing them from the city’s memory. But when the filthy ocean foam had pushed their boat back into Valeria Harbour, back towards the towering office blocks and their shimmering, mirrored façades, they were confronted once again with evidence of their diminishing physical forms. And rather than being alarmed by the sight of the ageing voyagers pressing in from the other side of the glass, they felt a strange kind of relief. They were boatmen on the verge of accomplishing their mission. Just a little longer, and they would be safely delivered to the other shore.

Most of the group had lived all their lives in this coastal territory called Nevers, located to the south of Ksana. Nevers had been built up by the kingdom of Valeria and ruled by her for over a hundred years, developing first on Valeria Island and then expanding to the Ksanese peninsula across the harbour. Nowadays, the city was looking well past its prime. Skyscrapers thrust upwards like lethal weapons and, at fixed times every evening, a light show started up on both sides of the harbour, laser beams strafing the water and blinding passers-by. The group left their boat and headed towards the western side of Valeria Island, leaving behind the high-rises and entering the city’s maze-like alleys where there were still shophouses even older than they were. The shopfronts were narrow, displaying a few pine coffins or stacked bamboo rocking chairs and baskets, with upstairs floors that extended over the street, darkened windows tightly closed. Now and then someone might be glimpsed shuffling behind the glass, but, then again, perhaps it was just the reflection of a drifting cloud.

After the blond-haired, blue-eyed Valerian colonizers occupied the central zone of Valeria Island, one of their first actions was to lay down a road named after their empress. Before long, barracks, opium depots, dance halls, and bars sprang up along both sides. When thousands of Ksanese came fleeing the war inland, bringing with them only what they could carry, they gathered to the west of these developments, where they cobbled together badly ventilated, two- or three-storey shophouses. They raised animals and peddled goods on the ground floors, and used wooden boards to divide the cramped upper storeys into even tinier spaces, which they then rented out. These houses were so dark and hot that some residents moved their kitchens outside and squatted by the road to cook, hawking food to passers-by. Early in the morning, congee sellers would cross paths with night-soil collectors, their respective liquids slopping over the sides of the buckets that dangled from their yokes, causing the street to brim with a dubious odour; come March or April, when the constant rains set in, clandestine new life forms began to flourish. Many of the inland immigrants, unused to the climate, found that the spaces in between their toes festered and became unbearably itchy, releasing an alarming stench whenever they took off their shoes.

Those refugees used to think often of how, one day, they would leave Valeria-administered Nevers and return home. But then the authoritarian Vanguard Party took over inland Ksana, establishing the Vanguard Republic and sealing off its borders. The refugees watched as one child was born, then another, each one leading to the next, all of them bouncing out to race around in the streets. Sometimes the refugees yelled at them, or chased them with feather dusters. Other times they simply watched them scamper away, these children who imitated foreigners, their mouths spewing a ghostly language their parents could barely understand. The refugees looked off to where there had once been bobbing ocean waves and wondered when all the water had turned to concrete. Valeria Island’s coastline had vanished into the distance, extending the tiny land mass outwards. A train line ran across the newly claimed ground. Meanwhile the refugees felt as if they, and the city they had lived in for so much of their lives, had transformed from solid entities into slippery illusions.

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The daytrippers contentedly strolling the Valeria Island streets with Professor Q were second-generation immigrants. They were ladies and gentlemen of the petite bourgeoisie, raised during the era of the city’s breakneck development, used to everything being a competition—and, having emerged victorious from these competitions, they were now unapologetically smug about their achievements. In all their long years, most of them had never once ventured over to socialist Ksana, although when their parents made the trip they gave them extra banknotes to make up for it, and had them deliver box after box of gifts to the relatives left behind in their ancestral hometowns. They felt no particular sense of national consciousness and didn’t believe in linguistic purism. Among friends they usually spoke Southern, the language that had spread through the region, but they used the written form of Ksanese mixed with Southern slang for their personal correspondence and reverted to their respective hometown dialects for interactions with their parents. In their capacity as local elites, however, they composed official correspondence in Valerian, and sat around in public places ostentatiously reading Valerian-language newspapers rather than Ksanese ones.

And Professor Q? None of them knew anything about his past. He had appeared among them as Maria’s husband: a short man with wavy hair always combed from an unsophisticated centre parting. From some angles his skin appeared so dark it was almost blue, like that of the labourers who arrived in Nevers from places further south, while in other lights he looked fair enough to pass as one of the Western colonizers. Even more bewildering was that not only did he speak fluent Southern and Valerian, he also knew languages the rest of them had never even heard of. If any of them enquired about his nationality or place of birth, he would only smile, or glance shyly at Maria and reply with the Ksanese proverb: You marry a cat, you follow the cat. You marry a bird, you follow the bird.

The city on Valeria Island extended from the flattened area around the shoreline up into the mountains beyond it. The street with the antiques market gave way to a twisting road, and the group climbed steadily higher. The island’s precipitous terrain offered a panoramic view of the harbour and peninsula, making it easy to understand why the original colonizers had chosen it as their strategic regional base. Yet, ten years earlier, the declining Valerian Empire had handed Nevers over like a gift to the Vanguard Republic, which was at that moment captivating audiences on the global stage. Having little faith in the new regime, several of the daytrippers had opted to leave. Then, as the years went by, they had all come back. Some returned without their partners, and others with greyer, sparser hair, their faces marked as if butterflies had flown over and left behind permanent shadows. Now, when they got together for meals, they still laughed as uproariously as they always had, revealing yellowing, gap-toothed smiles, and they still ordered like showoff yuppies, although they ate less and less. During the final phase of these gatherings there was always a white layer of congealed fat over the remaining meat and vegetables, the carcass of the picked-over fish, the half-full bowl of cooled soup.

The group commented on how, in the few short years of their absence, Nevers had constructed even more enormous glass commercial buildings, and even more housing blocks, shinier and skinnier than ever before. The labyrinthine back alleys were crammed with inquisitive inland Ksanese dragging bulky leather suitcases— the very same inlanders they had once considered impoverished country bumpkins, who now arrived with rolls of banknotes bursting from their pockets. Professor Q informed his companions that a number of the surviving high-end hotels, constructed a few years back to attract European guests with their ‘colonial flair’, had started to recruit staff proficient in Northern, the standardized language of inland Ksana. They were welcoming the inland nouveau riche to the penthouse suites. Up there, one press of a remote and the curtains would part to display the concrete flesh of the city, still frantically growing.

What the group had not noticed was that the majority of inland visitors were delivered en masse by tour buses to newly developed districts of Nevers, where they were stuffed like foam packing peanuts into hastily constructed, grandiose hotels that looked like bizarre space stations. These hotels were temporary stage sets thrown together for the benefit of tourists, with imitation marble floors and glittering false ceilings that would deteriorate within a couple of years, and cheap paintwork that rapidly stained and peeled. Every so often there would be a report hidden in the corner of the newspaper about a carelessly installed lift in free fall, the handful of tourists inside it vanishing forever into a dark hole underground. While the cross-border bridge from western Nevers to another Ksanese peninsula was under construction, a few workers lost their footing and fell into the sea—but those deaths were soundless deaths, unlike those of the new inland immigrants who jumped, one, then another, from the tops of buildings, landing with horrifying thuds, obliging cleaners to rush out and work overtime to scrub blood and brain matter from the pavements.

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As the area first exploited by the colonizers, set up as their great international trading hub, Valeria Island was still home to most of the blue-eyed, golden-haired, fresh-faced foreigners in Nevers. All the finest, most long-standing restaurants were there, and so too was a distinctive, age-old atmosphere of arrogance, luxury, and indolence. Towards the end of their stroll, the group passed a stretch of luxury villas built into the seized mid-mountain territory, aggressively fortified with black iron gates. As they proceeded back down into the city centre, they heard fluttery strains of jazz music and found both sides of the alley taken up by swaying, half-drunk foreigners. Joking and whispering to one another in Southern, the group brushed past the foreigners as if they themselves were nothing but a band of happy tourists, with no connection whatsoever to the city. Professor Q was the only one who seemed mysteriously perturbed. His ears were humming like organ pipes, and the red lips of the foreigner women rose to dance before his eyes, while their breasts undulated in the dim evening light.

The group continued until they reached a little snake restaurant, where they settled themselves around an octagonal wooden table to dine on duck liver sausages and a congee-like snake soup scattered with chrysanthemum petals. Grease soon coated the insides of their mouths, and their peals of laughter ricocheted off the walls like disturbed pigeons. Meanwhile, Professor Q felt everything around him turn black, and his mouth go painfully dry.

The following day Professor Q stayed in bed with a high fever, his throat so hoarse he had to ask Maria to call in sick to the university on his behalf. That evening, barely conscious, he was taken to a nearby clinic, where the poisonous scent of disinfectant assaulted his nostrils, and young, flutter-eyed nurses took turns giggling behind a glass screen. The waiting room was so cold that even the sofas seemed to have turned blue with it.

In an examination room, a doctor instructed him to undress and lie back in a leather chair. The professor felt his body become passive and feminine, an object for the doctor’s obscene icy stethoscope to probe wherever it liked, touching on intimate, wrinkled folds of skin. He glanced at the doctor in alarm, then his vision cleared and he realized that this was David! David, who had returned many years ago from his medical studies in Valeria as a prematurely ageing young man, his hair already half gone. Keeping to the usual routine, David pressed the professor’s fat, reddened tongue with a popsicle stick and shone a tiny light onto his white-speckled uvula.

‘Your throat is a little inflamed,’ he said.

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Every autumn since Professor Q had settled in Nevers, he now recalled, the air had carried in it a toxin he did not seem able to adapt to, causing him to bring his inflamed throat to David’s clinic. He no longer felt afraid; after all, the doctor’s implements could only probe the most superficial parts of his reality.

As he had done all the other times before, David prescribed

Professor Q two bottles of a red medicine to be taken morning, noon, and night. Back at home, Maria insisted that the professor eat porridge with honey before taking his first dose. She pressed a hand to his forehead like a clergywoman bestowing her blessings, and whispered: ‘Perhaps it was the snake. Or maybe just a bad wind off the sea.’

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Excerpted from Owlish by Dorothy Tse, translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press. Translation copyright © 2023 by Natascha Bruce. All rights reserved.

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