A Pattern of Freedom: On Can Xue’s ‘Frontier’


If in The Last Lover, Can Xue’s Best Translated Book Award-winning novel from 2014, characters seem to be wandering in and out of each other’s dreams, in Frontier, the author’s latest work to be published in English, experience has almost become detached from bodies entirely. It floats as if through the air of Pebble Town, a settlement of uncertain size on an unspecified, but presumably northern, Chinese border, attaching itself by turns to the town’s various human and animal inhabitants. Several unrelated characters share a memory of “standing on the ocean floor,” while others recognize their fathers or lovers in the form of geckoes and wagtails; mysterious shadows in one woman’s house are said to belong both to “invisible people” and to wolves. Just as the human effortlessly fades into the non-human, so do the boundaries between inner and outer life, between life and death themselves, lose their solidness. When one character is shocked by the beauty of a woman’s red skirt among a herd of sheep uttering “sorrowful cries,” Can Xue writes, “It was wondrous,” and indeed, all of Frontier is.

One of the best-known experimental writers in China, Can Xue (the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua) has found increasing success in the West for her strange but luminous work. Frontier, originally written in 2008 and now published in Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping’s translation, is perhaps the best and most beautiful of her novels yet to reach English readers. Plot never dominates Can Xue’s work; rather, her novels build upon images and affects that repeat, vary, and recombine, giving rise to patterns at once original and tinglingly familiar. While readers approaching Frontier as a cipher to be decoded are therefore likely to grow frustrated, those who allow themselves to be immersed in it as in music or painting will begin to perceive the novel’s complex harmonies. Something of Frontier’s lush and perilous landscape may resonate particularly with American readers, who will sense in it a counterpart to their own mythology of a sublime internal frontier.

“Where there is desire,” Can Xue wrote in The Last Lover, “there is a wilderness.” Frontier develops the equivalence even further, until Pebble Town’s magical terrain is just as much the manifestation of its inhabitants’ desires as it is the backdrop for them. Whether it is the vastness of the Gobi Desert (which Pebble Town is said to border) or the floating garden that sometimes appears miraculously in midair, the landscape of the frontier, as one character observes, exerts “tremendous pressure on people.” A man named Lee, who, gazing at the “scenery outside,” feels his heart, “long covered with dust, bubble over with joy,” has the following conversation with his wife:
“Nothing you see here is actually what it appears to be.”
Grace raised her left eyebrow, as if thinking of something.
“Do you think this is like our ailments?” she asked him.
“Do you mean the thing inside us and the thing outside us are the same thing?” Lee was perplexed.
“Lee, Lee, we’ve finally broken out!”
The ecstasy at this apparent unity of interior and exterior life implies that a threshold far beyond the geographical has been crossed. Pebble Town is repeatedly described as a utopia, but it may also be something like a utopian purgatory. Hardly anyone does much of anything—most of the town’s residents are employed by the enigmatic Design Institute, though no one ever works—yet they are all caught up in barely-articulable processes of metamorphosis, as if straining to break into another type of existence of which Pebble Town is the premonition. Moreover, some of them have a whiff of death about them: one man is told outright that he smells “a little” like a “dead person,” and another, plagued by dreams of being chased, blurts out, “The dead are struggling for territory against the living people.” The Design Institute itself is said to look like “a giant grave,” and its director’s adopted relative Ying, who wanders the grounds of the Institute like a “timekeeper,” recalls a god of death, counting down everyone’s seconds.

For all its supernatural suggestions, however, Pebble Town also belongs undeniably to contemporary China. There are allusions to a surveillance state (“Everyone’s movements are tracked!”) and an ominous reference to “execution reform.” A young man named Marco, whose identity is one of the least stable in the book (“in a split second he became a different person”), was adopted by a Dutch family as a child and later sent back. He longs to return to Holland (which Pebble Town also supposedly borders), and undertakes a dangerous journey across a river and through a desert attempting to reach his idealized Western past. Liujin, a woman characterized as a true “daughter of the frontier,” was born in Pebble Town because her parents fled “Smoke City” for the “clean” borderlands, “where no air pollution existed;” Liujin and her father, listening “to birds singing outside the window,” in or near the Gobi Desert, feel they are in a “utopia.” While Frontier is much more than a wistful social fantasy, this sense of injustice—surveillance and oppression, exploitative adoption practices, the destruction of the natural world—courses beneath the book’s brilliant landscapes like the mysterious waters said to flow under Pebble Town itself.

There are books that seem to expand ever outward, so that upon finishing them, readers see the world anew through the author’s eyes. Others expand inward, leaving behind a glow to be carried for days like a secret. Frontier’s “bright, shining,” shapeshifting town, “a paradise for vagrants,” lovers, and wolves, offers, like poetry, what Can Xue says each of her characters already possesses: “a pattern of freedom.”

Choosing Not to Flee: On Helen Macdonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’


Knowing how to make yourself disappear does not serve you well in life, writes Helen Macdonald, unless you are attempting to train a hawk. When there is a goshawk on her arm, a huge bird of prey who has no experience with the human world and who is staring at her in absolute terror, Macdonald can make herself invisible. Holding a chunk of raw steak in her hand, her goal is to get the hawk to forget about her, to forget the terror, and eat. “But the space between the fear and the food is a vast, vast gulf,” she writes, “and you have to cross it together.” To do that, you must disappear: you empty your mind, you remain still, you “think of exactly nothing at all.” You gradually expand your invisibility to cover everything in the room except the food, which you squeeze slightly. When the hawk begins to eat, you may, very slowly, reappear.

A professor of mine introduced me to that idea a couple of years ago; for him, the process of crossing a “vast gulf” while negotiating your own visibility was akin to the process of translation (a word which means, in fact, “to carry across”). As it appears in Macdonald’s new book, H is for Hawk, the scene serves as a metaphor of a different, though related, kind: as a journey from death into life, from absence into presence. It is no accident that this journey is mediated by a bird of prey. In many of the world’s mythic traditions, hawks are cast as the messengers of the gods and the companions of the soul on its voyage to the afterlife. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the ba (the immortal part of the soul) departs the body in the shape of a hawk.

The goshawk, in Macdonald’s scene of invisibility, represents a bridge between two worlds: fear and food, death and life. Like many books about hawks, H is for Hawk begins on the side of death. Macdonald’s father passes away suddenly in the book’s first pages, and the author finds herself before a vast gulf of grief. Sorrow is not a rational problem and cannot be solved by rational means; as a poet and falconer, Macdonald seeks out a poetic, avian remedy to her pain. Soon after her father’s death, she starts dreaming of hawks “all the time.” She orders a goshawk from Northern Ireland, and when it arrives, she sets it on her arm and turns invisible.

Read symbolically, Macdonald’s act of disappearance becomes much more than an effective training technique; it becomes a deliberate act of surrender to the unconscious, an appeal to a shadow guide. Erasing yourself for the sake of a hawk is one way of learning that you must disappear before you can be present in your own life.

H is for Hawk is not a mystical book, but it is one of those rare works of non-fiction that stand up to a metaphorical reading. The echoes of myth in Macdonald’s writing, however subtle and unobtrusive, lend her book an emotional weight usually reserved only for literature, and a grace only for poetry. But this is one of the book’s great achievements: to belong to several genres at once, and to succeed at all of them. The narrative includes elements from memoir, biography, and natural history, with some chapters exploring the human history of Macdonald’s English landscape and others turning inward, toward Macdonald herself and her ghostly counterpart, the writer T.H. White. Translating between them, guiding the reader as it once guided lost souls, there is always the goshawk.

Of all birds of prey, the goshawk is the most difficult to train. Described by hawking manuals as “jumpy, fractious, unsociable,” goshawks are temperamental, prone to fits of “passing madness” in which they perch on a high tree branch and refuse to come down, resolutely ignoring the hopeless humans who wait for them below. They have never been domesticated and never even truly tamed. More than any other bird, they seem to embody the Romantic sublime, terrifying and magnificent at once: Macdonald describes her own hawk as “a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean” and “something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”

Though a highly accomplished falconer, Macdonald writes that, before her father’s death, she had never wanted to train a goshawk. She preferred peregrines, which her books assured her were “the finest bird[s] on earth.” “It took me years,” she says, “to work out that this glorification of falcons was partly down to who got to fly them.” The falcon is a rich man’s bird: flying a peregrine requires huge amounts of space, a luxury traditionally only available to aristocrats with large country estates. A goshawk, by contrast, can be flown anywhere, and were therefore popular among those without wealth or connections. These solitary trainers, known as austringers, were disdained by the aristocratic falconer community, cursed for “hat[ing] company and go[ing] alone at their sport.” The goshawk is the bird of the temporary exile, and Macdonald was not the first to seek it out in lieu of human company. Indeed, no sooner has she decided to man a goshawk than her eyes start avoiding a particular book in her study, “second shelf down. Red cloth cover. Silver-lettered spine.”

The book is T.H. White’s The Goshawk, a record of the author’s attempt to train, as he put it, “a person who was not human, but a bird.” Written in 1936, though not published until 1951, the book was condemned as a falconer’s checklist of what not to do. White had never trained a hawk before; he was inexperienced, he was using manuals centuries out of date, and he unintentionally caused his hawk, a tiercel (male) named Gos, a great deal of suffering. Macdonald had read The Goshawk as a hawk-obsessed child and found it infuriating. And yet, as soon as she has arranged for a Gos of her own, she unconsciously reaches out to this author who, like herself, wanted to disappear.

The brilliant but “unfashionable” writer best known for his Arthurian saga The Once and Future King, Terence Hanbury White was, in Macdonald’s words, “one of the loneliest men alive.” Homosexual and self-loathing, with a sadistic streak, White spent much of his energy trying to flee from humanity. His two great refuges were writing and the outdoors. The Goshawk was his first book as a full-time author; despite its failings as a work of falconry, it is a marvelous piece of literature. Macdonald reads it several times in the months she spends with her own hawk, and observes that “every time it seemed a different book; sometimes a caustically funny romance, sometimes the journal of a man laughing at failure, sometimes a heartbreaking tract of another man’s despair.”

Though H is for Hawk is not intended to be a biography of White, Macdonald explains, “I have to write about him because he was there.” Some of her reasons for sequestering herself with a goshawk, she realizes, are not her own but White’s; and though the personalities and experiences of the two writers are quite different, there is still a strange kinship between them. “Like White I wanted to cut loose from the world,” Macdonald writes, “and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.” Here, too, the goshawk is the messenger between the living and the dead: across the gulf of time, Macdonald finds in White a companion, a point of reference, an object of study, and her own foil.

White lived in constant fear. He feared the cruelty of his homophobic, militaristic society, and, especially, the cruelty he felt within himself. He knew that enjoyed inflicting pain and he hated himself for it, and so always took great care to be gentle. (Of Sir Lancelot, his double, White wrote: “He felt in his heart cruelty and cowardice, the things which made him brave and kind.”) White wanted desperately to be good, but believed goodness was only possible away from his fellow man. Spending time with Gos, a “person who was not human,” was the only way he could tolerate his own humanity. Training Gos offered him a chance to confront his own darkness and not merely repress it; one of the many ways to read The Goshawk, Macdonald says, is as a war, where, through Gos, White “battled the dictator in himself.” White ultimately lost that battle; perhaps he failed to recognize Gos as his guide, and instead mistook him for his enemy, albeit a much-loved one.

Macdonald, though she, too, yearns to leave her weaknesses behind, never sees her own hawk as an adversary. She understands that her hawk is not only the individual she has named Mabel, but a tangle of many centuries’ worth of human associations. “So much of what she means is made of people,” Macdonald muses. Shortly afterward, she discovers that Mabel likes to play; she likes the sound of crinkled paper, and she shakes in bird-laughter when Macdonald calls to her through a rolled magazine telescope. The revelation is a delight, yet it fills Macdonald with an “obscure shame.” “I had a fixed idea of what a goshawk was,” she writes, “…and it was not big enough to hold what goshawks are. No one had ever told me goshawks played. It was not in the books. I had not imagined it was possible.”

But writers know better than most that books cannot always be trusted. Books urge us to flee to the wild when our hearts are broken; books, like John Muir’s, assure us that “Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.” Macdonald argues that our ideas of nature, like our ideas of goshawks, are too small, having more to do with ourselves than with the world around us. “I’d fled to become a hawk,” she writes, “but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me.” Here again, that ability to disappear, which Macdonald says serves her so badly elsewhere in life, proves crucial. When she makes herself invisible — suspending her ego, suspending the knowledge of books — she begins to understand what, in fact, she has been trying to do.

Macdonald’s dream of goshawks, her father’s death, her sudden renewed interest in White are all facets of a single desire: she wanted to help White recover what he had lost, because in the dark forest where his hawk was, there might her father be too. She sought out the hawk, the ancient companion of dead souls, “to find my father; find him and bring him home.”

One cannot go into the dark forest to recall anyone from death, however, but only to learn to accept death. The journey is over when the survivor consents to return to human life; Macdonald has to go into the wild to learn that the wild is not what she needs. In the end, she chooses not to flee and disappear: her hands, no longer invisible, “are for other human hands to hold.”