September 22, 2005

Book Review: Nao Xue Ji

鬧學記 (Nao Xue Ji)*
By: 三毛 (Sanmao, also known as Echo Chan)
ISBN: 957330084

When was the last time you saw an author’s photo on a book’s spine? If your answer was “never,” then you have not seen the new editions of Sanmao’s complete works. Each of the twenty-six books in the series has a picture of Sanmao, both on the cover and on the spine. This should give you a clue as to Sanmao’s popularity. She was a celebrity writer, something than is becoming hard to imagine. Celebrities write books, but rarely does a writer become a celebrity. Sanmao wrote books, newspaper columns, song lyrics, even the screenplay for “The Chess Master.” Her works have not been translated into English, but she is known to Chinese not only in Taiwan, but throughout the world. She talks about “China” synonymously with “Taiwan,” and just as she embraces China in her identity, she has a great number of readers from the Mainland who are attracted by her uniqueness and free-spirited mode of life.

This collection of essays begins with her experience studying English in America as an adult. Sanmao’s life was about making connections with people and exploring life, so “studying” is not the right word; attending school would be more accurate. She finds the ideal English class for her purposes. She describes how each class begins: “First, chat for 10 minutes, at the same time observing that day’s clothing. Whoever is dressed especially well should stand up and turn around. At this time everyone calls out in approval. Next, we pour our drinks and make tea. If the teacher has baked banana bread, then plates are passed out.” I can’t help but think that this is most students’ idea of a dream class. Language classes often resemble some kind of club meeting more than any traditional class, such as math, science or literature.

She describes bringing candy for her classmates: “As soon as the colored things appeared in the classroom, everyone became children, picking and choosing…” This brings back memories about what I dislike most about language classes: because students are able to communicate at the level of children, both teacher and student revert to the behavior and conversation of children. It doesn’t require candy for this to happen. Jokes become mind-numbingly stupid and students are encouraged to chatter about any topic whatsoever. A class specifically for “conversation” is the most mindless. The usual goal of a conversation class is not to learn about a language, but to produce language, which means that as long as a teacher or student is gabbing away, the teacher’s goal is being achieved. However, for Sanmao, who was a voracious reader, learning a few new grammar points was obviously less important than befriending her classmates, and therefore, her class really was ideal.

Sanmao’s tales about schooling occupy only one third of this book. After this first section, there are five miscellaneous essays taken from various periods in Sanmao’s life. Next is an eleven-page poem, followed by a book review. The review of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” makes sense thematically; in this book and other books by Sanmao, she is an outsider. But despite the theme, inserting a poem and a book review in the middle of this book turns it into a hodgepodge of writings.

The next section of the book is titled “Yi'ai” (遺愛), which means love left behind, especially by death. This section deals with Sanmao repeatedly moving away from people who love her. In the first part of the book, she goes into detail about parting with her friends and classmates in America. In the second part of the book, she returns to her house in Spain’s Canary Islands and then quickly sells her house and departs. She also writes about leaving her apartment in Taipei, where she had made many friends, because she had impulsively decided that she wanted another apartment. In contrast to the lighthearted beginning to this book, these departures are overshadowed by Sanmao’s death, which came years later. Although some consider her death to have been murder, most people accept it as suicide. Suicide looms like a specter over this book, making her impulsiveness even more mysteriousness.

Sanmao describes her feelings about departing, and her actions that bear out her thinking are described in detail, but after reading only two of her books, she is still very much a mystery to me. Mystery is a major element of her post-mortem aura. Trying to understand Sanmao, and enjoyment for the unique way that she lived her life, are enough to make me continue reading her books.

*Note: A poor translation of the book title, 鬧學記, is "Record of Schooling Havoc." Tell me if you can think of a good translation.


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