Dancing with Memory: On Brian Castro’s Shanghai Dancing

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Memory has always been tricky; now that machines remember for us, it’s only gotten trickier. Google has already become Borges’ Fuñes, condemned to remember everything and, hence, unable to determine what’s actually worth saving. Kafka: “I can swim just like the others. Only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten the former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, being able to swim is of no help to me; and so, after all, I cannot swim.” This is the situation we find ourselves in; when memory has been reduced to a science, the only appropriate response is to reclaim it by art. Increasingly, the novels I cherish most are those that offer tools for navigating the changing landscape of memory — thus my good fortune to have stumbled upon the Australian novelist Brian Castro.

I first heard of Castro’s Shanghai Dancing while at a conference in Sydney in 2003, where a panelist mentioned in the same breath as the German novelist W. G. Sebald. Intrigued, I bought a copy for the plane ride home, and Castro’s book took me immediately, gathered me up like few others. “Winter had descended on Shanghai,” it began. “There was no real hope of finding tomatoes. You went looking anyway. It was a cure of sorts. No, not the tomatoes, but the search.” I read nearly the entire 400-page book on that flight, enthralled and entranced, my concentration broken only by the flight attendant who kept hitting on the two girls next to me (which wasn’t all bad; he snuck them the first-class dessert, which they in turn gave to me). When I got home, I went straight to the only publisher I knew, and pressed the book into her hands and told her she needed to buy the American rights. Luckily, she did.

Castro’s obscurity in the States is a little hard to fathom. Like David Mitchell, Castro plumbs the histories of decaying empires, trawling the Eastern coasts of the Pacific Ocean, and intertwines them with vertiginous family dramas with the sensitivity and eloquence of Marilynne Robinson. Like Ondaatje, he approaches the ruin and calamities of the past without hand-wringing moralizing, instead tracing the echoes of these disasters on marginal figures otherwise forgotten. He’s won almost every literary prize Australia has to offer (short of the Booker), and at one point during the summer of 2011 the bookmaker Victor Chandler had 33:1 odds that he’d win the Nobel Prize (a long shot, to be sure, but better than the odds for A. S. Byatt or Ian McEwan).

Put simply, Shanghai Dancing is the best contemporary book in English that most Americans have never heard of. Castro’s “fictional autobiography” follows Antonio Castro (whose biography shares much with Castro the author) –forced to leave Shanghai as a child, he returns 40 years later seeking an inheritance consisting both of money and stories. Gradually, the latter will become more important, as Antonio’s investigation unearths stories of failed business enterprises and embezzlements, the atrocities of Japan’s occupation of Shanghai during the 1930’s, affairs and mistresses and illegitimate children, and even the Spanish Inquisition:

Sometimes you suffocate when you think of the past; of a life that never was, flashing up in sepia. Memory which is creamy-yellow, cracked; composed of protogallic acid, protosulphate of iron, potassium cyanide. Let’s not get too technical. Not right now. It makes for too much exposure. Still, in the dark, you remember that in Shanghai they used to wrap tomatoes in tissue paper. Like this story. Like the way everything in history is wrapped in a tissue; of words, of memories, of lies.

Castro’s solution to a surfeit of lies and contradictions, of “official histories” and other modes of obliteration is a mélange of voices, of tones that range from the literary to the technical to the groan-inducing pun — a light touch amidst what might otherwise bear down its reader. Fragmentary and sprawling, Shanghai Dancing never loses its focus — or rather, it encourages the reader to see its focus in terms of the fragmentary and the incomplete. The “Shanghai Dancing” of the title is given a dozen different slang definitions, from “a rite of passage” to syphilis, but ultimately it becomes the mode by which Castro’s novel engages with history and family memories — a narration that never settles into one voice, and which never settles for the accepted answers.

And then there are the photographs. In the wake of Sebald’s death, there have been dozens of novels that have attempted his approach of incorporating photography alongside prose, and less successful imitators have shown that one can’t simply slather photographs onto the page and expect profundity. Castro’s use of photography, like Sebald’s, plays on the inherently unstable relationship between text and image, and forces open the gaps between them to add more layers onto the novel. At one point, Castro gives us a straightforward group portrait of Antonio’s father’s jazz band from 1926: six men in tuxedos, their instruments neatly arranged in front of them. The image is staged in such a way as to lack any ambiguity; the caption that accompanies it, however, undercuts this entirely:

The Venus Café, New Year’s Eye, 1926. My father the band leader is seated. His best friend Lobo Ling stands beside him. Later they are going to kiss the girls in turn and watch the future unfurl with fireworks and bullets and take their trousers to the laundry in the morning past a line of bodies in the gutters, each shot in the back through their sleeveless pullovers.

Even with an evocation of such violence, Castro’s project is not to castigate or instruct us in politically correct history, so much as to complicate the relationship between family history and national history, the two infecting one another.