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Making the Best of It
By Margaret Black

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: Stories

By Yiyun Li

Random House, 205 pages, $21.95

For all its modest length, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers hides many treasures. This debut collection of 10 stories by Yiyun Li treads cross-cultural territory familiar to readers of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies or Monica Ali’s Brick Lane or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, but in Li’s tales all the tensions and conflicts occur due to collisions of culture within one country: China. It’s the radically changing political scene that generates most of the friction.

The stories take place in burgeoning, post-Mao, capitalist China. But even very young children drag forward pasts that are unimaginably different from the present, while at the same time they try to fathom—or just survive—age-old cultural norms that have become horribly twisted by circumstances during the revolutionary era. In “Death Is Not a Bad Joke if Told the Right Way,” a girl sits uncomfortably on the sharp-edged neck of a stone lion (decapitated during the Cultural Revolution) that guards the entryway to a once-grand family courtyard. She is taking “a break from being someone’s daughter,” having been sent by her judgmental elite mother to spend the summer with Mrs. Pang, her old nanny and a former Class Enemy. In addition to fantasizing about the joys of being an orphan, the girl reflects on the neighbors:

Mr. and Mrs. Song started as tenants, renting the room at the western side of the quadrangle, but they stopped paying when Mr. Pang was kicked out of his working unit as an enemy of the People. Mr. and Mrs. Song stayed, claiming themselves to be the legal owners of the room. During the years of their occupancy, they demolished Mr. Pang’s flowerbed and built a kitchen on the spot. They installed clotheslines between Mr. Pang’s pomegranate tree and grape trellis, their flagging underwear the permanent decoration of the yard. They produced four sons, and the six of them are still living in one room, the youngest son already sixteen and the oldest twenty-three.

Fond as she is of Mrs. Pang, the girl still likes the wild, unemployed Song boys and their scabrous talk. At summer’s end, on the bus ride home, her mother bawls her out publicly for bad behavior: “ ‘I have to admit twice my mistake,’ the girl says, ‘once to my mother and then in a louder voice so that all the passengers can hear me.’ ” In revenge, she quietly hums an outmoded song: “The Party is dearer than my own mother. My mother only gives me a body. It is the Party who gives me a soul.” Not only is the story a penetrating study of complicated individual characters, but it’s also a short course in 20th-century Chinese history as well.

In “Immortality,” a tale about a young man who looks like Chairman Mao, the narrator remembers Mao’s famous boast that the Americans could atom bomb China all they liked: “If half of us are killed, we still have two hundred and fifty million,” and these would double themselves in no time. After Mao’s death, rumors began spread about the fifty million dead because of famine and political persecution. “But if you looked at the number closely,” the narrator observes, “you would realize it is far less than what the dictator was once willing to sacrifice to American nuclear bombs. So what is all the fuss about?”

But above and beyond history, the author has a firm, unsentimental grip on how individuals strive to grab happiness in a less-than-encouraging world. A homosexual doctor harassed by the government first for his advocacy of gay rights and then for writing about AIDS escapes to America by marrying a lesbian. Three talented young intellectuals in a godforsaken village plot to emigrate, but one is cheated and later will not leave even when the opportunity arises. First cousins marry against the wishes of their families and produce a brain-damaged daughter whom they hide for the rest of her life. A retired math teacher goes to a stockbrokerage each day to follow the progress of a fictional investment portfolio. An old spinster agrees to an arranged marriage in order to eat.

Yiyun Li tells terrific stories. “Persimmons,” a tale practically chanted by a chorus of peasants watching the drought ruin their crops, their animals, and their livelihood, praises the actions of a heroic neighbor who murdered 17 people. “Immortality” takes place in a town that’s a story in itself: For hundreds of years it used to deliver eunuchs (“though out of reverence we call them Great Papas”) to serve at the imperial court and received back from these mutilated men the money the rest of the town lived on.

Li, a native Chinese, writes beautifully nuanced English, so clear and precise that when you come across the odd syntactical error or ill-chosen word, you want to shake the translator, only there isn’t one. You wonder why the editors didn’t bother to question these small stumbles.

But in the end it’s her characters and vision that makes the difference in Li’s work. The father in the title story tells an Iranian woman who can’t understand a word he’s saying, “It takes three thousand years of prayers to place your head side by side with your loved one’s on the pillow. For father and daughter? A thousand years, maybe. People don’t end up randomly as father and daughter.” Perhaps not. But in this author’s world it certainly does take that thousand years of good prayers.

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