The city is haunted by the violent suppression of the beasts, which has been written out of history — Yong’an, comically, means “eternal peace.” The unnamed narrator, a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking zoology student-turned-novelist, is assigned to investigate the beasts and tell their stories for a local newspaper. She seeks them out with a gumshoe gumption, or just waits for them to drift into her favorite haunt, the grimy Dolphin Bar. The nine beasts are delightfully drawn: there are the “flourishing beasts,” with six fingers and blue markings, who, after death, are cut up and buried, then nourished with rice wine until they become saplings; there are “sorrowful beasts,” who “fear trains, bitter gourd and satellite TV,” and die if they smile.
However, the whimsical characterizations of each creature are a feint — their “otherness,” invariably, is tied to their exploitation. Before being married off to humans, female “sorrowful beasts” are hypnotized and injected with hormones to suppress their nonhuman nature. The last surviving “sacrificial beasts” are exterminated by the government. Simplistic narratives and cold taxonomy are shown to do enormous harm.
The book itself defies easy categorization. Along with its classical allusions, it melds the fable-like haze of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” with a heady drag of noir. The narrator, in her effort to humanize the beasts, turns their lives into romantic melodramas for her tales. Despite the restless shifts in tone, the style never feels disjointed, in large part due to Tiang’s tremendous, fine-drawn translation.
Yan is a deft and engaging storyteller, with a proclivity for dramatic revelations, often to a fault. “Strange Beasts” lacks the wit and control of her later writing. Yet, though each chapter follows a similar, repetitive structure — perhaps reflecting the book’s initial serialization —Yan’s rare versatility and inventiveness keeps the narrative continuously surprising.
At its best, “Strange Beasts” transfixes you like a vivid dream, offering glimpses of the waking world contorted into uncanny forms. Though it never becomes a neat allegory, beneath the fantastical elements is a blatant critique of anthropocentrism and state control, and a keen concern for the way power is wielded against the marginalized. The world of “Strange Beasts” is more familiar than it initially seems. As the scholar Guo Pu wrote in his commentary on the “Classic,” “A thing is not strange in itself; it depends on me to make it strange.”
Chris Littlewood lives in New York.
Strange Beasts of China
By Yan Ge; translated by Jeremy Tiang
Melville House. 240 pp. $25.99