Who knew I would one day be scrolling the pages of Marxists.org and reading a Don Quixote like story by a 20th century Chinese author. Well, life is strange, and so is the 1921 novella ‘The True Story Of Ah Q’ by Lu Xun.
Readers who appreciate satires would love how the story begins, with the narrator declaring he doesn’t even know the protagonist’s full name. Ah Q is a bumbling uneducated man, who does any kind of work that’s available, earning just enough to keep him fed and drunk by night. And sometimes, not even that. He often gets into fights, but everytime things don’t go well for him, Ah Q perceives his losses as victories. For example, after being defeated in a fight, Ah Q slaps himself hard, making him feel like he hit someone else and thus equates the feeling with win. Absurd yes, but the author is taking a dig at his countrymen, illustrating how the Chinese consider themselves superior at everything and try to project even losses as wins. Such an attitude might be harmless in one individual, but can be dangerous when it’s reflective of an entire society.
Most viewers that have no context will just be left confused and irritated with the story, wondering why a revered writer like Lu Xun bothered to write about an imbecile of a man at all. So here’s some context – Ah Q is supposed to represent the vices of the older Chinese generation. The 1920s was a time of a lot of internal strife in the country, it had just become a new republic and was faced several challenges. Modern literary thinkers like Lu Xun wanted China to move forward and not be stuck in the past.
This, the story of Ah Q represents an unwillingness to change with time. The protagonist would rather make fun of scholars and the rich, instead of doing something bout his own pathetic state of affair. In the end, it obviously leads to his doom.
I’ve obviously read the English translation, so it’s hard to comment of the language and flow of the novella. As far as the translation is concerned, it’s on the dry side, so the narration gets tedious at several points. There isn’t much humour, the sarcasm isn’t very sharp, so halfway through, most readers might lose interest in the story.
A lot of it has to do with Ah Q’s characteristics, he is what the ‘Gen Z’ would call a “loser”. He is an alcoholic, he gambles, steals, harasses women on the road and mocks scholars. So by the time things really shake-up in the story, it’s hard to keep your enthusiasm instant. The author cleverly mocks “revolutionaries” and displays just how ridiculous political upheaval can be, especially when seen through the eyes of ordinary citizens.
Unless read in political context, Lu Xun’s novella isn’t enjoyable. It’s a 2.5/5 from me.
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