Thought: June Fourth Elegies, by Liu Xiaobo (translated by Jeffrey Yang)

More dissident poetry! It was a rough early June in 2017 when we lost Irina Ratushinskaya and Liu Xiaobo in quick succession. This one felt a little bit like the baddies won though, if I can use such simplistic/childish language. Whereas Ratushinskaya lived to see her freedom and the end of the Soviet Union, Liu died in detention, the first Nobel prizewinner to do so since 1935 (says the internet).

I’m going to try to keep the comparisons to a minimum, but humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and I haven’t read nearly enough poetry in translation to help myself. So no promises.

The only thing I really want to compare is the Kindle formatting, weirdly enough – ebooks can often get a bit of a raw deal in that they look like the cheap/easy option, so you just whack the file online and bish bash bosh. Now, I have never actually formatted an ebook, but I have friends who’ve self-published work and I know just from being in the vicinity that it is a faff at the best of times. When anything non-fictionlike is in play, for example, footnotes or an index, I imagine it’s a thousand times worse. I haven’t published an ebook but I have read plenty, and badly done footnotes can kill an experience.

There are no footnotes in June Fourth Elegies, just a Notes section at the back, which makes sense when you’re reading on paper and can stick a bookmark in or flick back and forth with ease, but is a pain in the arse when you’re reading on an ereader and have to navigate to the Notes section manually and page through further and further as you progress through the book. And because it’s not footnoted, you don’t actually know what has been explained and what hasn’t, so you end up going back after every poem or two, or trying to hold in your mind which poems have notes attached, which isn’t ideal. At first I just thought there were no explanatory notes at all and I was expected to know off the top of my head what, for example, In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen was, and what Liu’s oblique reference to it was supposed to evoke in me, before Spuggy suggested I check for a Notes section. As it happens, I did find Lu Xun’s essay, In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen, and I read it, and I actually found it really affecting. It sparked off in me a little guilty thought that maybe I should be doing proper research when I read these books, instead of purely relying on the footnotes, let the reading experience unfold out into a fractal. But that’s not always practical, and in many cases I think it’d probably be detrimental to the experience of reading the book you’re reading. I dunno. I will say that the one note that was just a citation of one of Confucius’s Analects wasn’t particularly helpful. I don’t have a copy of it just lying around. (Maybe one day I’ll read it! Who knows?)

So, weird little tangent over.

This book was so hard to read. Not in a bad way. The translator’s note at the back (separate to the footnotes) explains that the few copies June Fourth Elegies was originally given as gifts to friends, and some of them were confiscated (I had wondered how on earth it had ever got to the outside world), so there’s an element of it… not being for us. I wonder if he intended to distribute them even that far, when he first started writing his commemorative poems on the anniversaries of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (One big difference between June Fourth Elegies and Grey is the Colour of Hope, which was written explicitly to be read as widely as possible, and so is full of friendly explanations of prison life and explanation of jargon.)

The book opens with a long, dense, anguished introduction by Liu, which reads as incredibly personal and almost stream-of-consciousness, full of references to history and contemporary politics both, and glancing glimpses of more private things. At one point he talks about contemporary Chinese literature that he finds sort of empty and vulgar, and named Shanghai Baby (by Wei Hui) which I’ve actually read (translated by Bruce Humes) and enjoyed, so I felt a bit like I was being disapproved of from beyond the grave. Interestingly, Shanghai Baby was banned in China for being decadent – I suppose it’s easy to assume that all banned literature is on the “same side”.

The poems are set out separately, each year’s offering laid out on its own, divided from the others by a page detailing the date and location of its writing.

Another formatting quibble here – this is a bilingual edition, which is possibly a bit ambitious in a Kindle version anyway? There’s no way to view both languages simultaneously across a two-page spread on an ereader, but at least you can have the poem in Chinese and then in English, right?


You certainly should be able to, but for some reason, the Chinese poems are displayed as images, so the text is really tiny (and no, it doesn’t matter that I don’t read Chinese) and the translation is also then divided up into sort of arbitrarily-sized chunks, based on the amount of text that fits in the “page-sized” image. Because the poems don’t have a lot of punctuation, and also because of the vagaries of font sizing meaning that the “page-sized” chunk of translation (Yang matched the line count of the originals) would sometimes end halfway down the page, I thought at first that there were multiple poems where there was only one long one per year. I would have bit the bullet and just shown the full Chinese poem followed by the full English translation for the ereader version, I think. I’m not sure there’s a better way. I also wouldn’t have had the Chinese be images, images on ereaders are the worst. I mean, it’s text, right? It should be doable.

Another nitpicky tangent done.

The twenty poems in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre are bleak, painful, repetitive in imagery and sentiment even as they sort of evolve as time passes and the Chinese government refuses to apologise or acknowledge what happened, as they get more repressive. It’s like a tight emotional spiral, slowly building on itself. It’s really hard to read, to watch the effect of this long-term heavy-handed repression on a person who refuses to pretend to forget. Everything feels so pressurised, so distilled down. It’s not beautiful poetry, or nuanced or subtle. It’s stark and plain, the same simple cry year after year, and they punished him for it over and over again.

The last five poems are separate to the elegies; he wrote them for his wife while he was in prison, a softer note to end on, and a little view of Liu on the other 364 days of the year. Yang’s translator’s note at the end was really interesting too – it told me a lot of what I was wondering about and a lot I hadn’t known.

I don’t really know how to end this review. My formatting niggles took a lot of words to explain but in the end they didn’t detract that much from the experience. The poems were heavy and took me a long time to get through. It all feels unfinished though. We don’t know how it ends yet. Because it certainly hasn’t ended yet.

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