Yu Hua’s populist voice and exquisite wit have made him one of the most celebrated and bestselling writers in China. These visceral, flawlessly crafted stories explore the line between cruelty and warmth on which his country is precariously balanced.
In the title story, a shopkeeper confronts a child thief and punishes him without mercy. “Victory” shows a young couple shaken by the husband’s infidelity, each scrambling to stake claims to the components of their shared life. Other tales show, by turns, two factory workers who spoil their only son, a gang of townsfolk who bully an innocent orphan, and a spectacular fistfight outside a refinery bathhouse. Taken together, these stories form a snapshot of a nation, lit with the deep feeling and ready humor that characterize its people. A sensation in Asia, Boy in the Twilight affirms Yu Hua’s place at the very forefront of literary fiction.
My father used to be a surgeon. He was a strong, robust man with a resonant voice. He regularly stood at the operating table for ten hours at a time, but at the end of his shift his face would not show the slightest signs of fatigue, and as he walked back to our apartment his steps were loud and firm. Nearing home, he would often take a pee by the corner of the alley outside. His urine would splash noisily on the wall, like a sudden downpour of rain.
When my father was twenty-five years old, he married a pretty young worker from the textile mill, and in their second year of marriage she gave him a son, my older brother, and two years later she had another son, who was me.
When I was eight, the vigorous surgeon happened to get a day off from his usual hectic schedule. He enjoyed the luxury of sleeping all morning at home, and in the afternoon he went for a long walk with his sons and played with them on the beach for hours. On the way home he let one ride on his shoulders and carried the other in his arms. By the time they had finished dinner it was already dark, and he, his wife, and their two children sat underneath the parasol tree that stood outside their door. At that hour the moonlight shone down, casting the leaves’ mottled shadows over us, and a cool breeze rustled.
The surgeon lay on a makeshift bamboo lounge chair, his wife sat in an adjacent rattan chair, and my brother and I sat next to each other on a bench. We listened as our father explained how everyone had an appendix in their belly and how every day he had to remove, at the very least, twenty or so appendixes. His fastest time was just fifteen minutes—fifteen minutes to perform the operation and cut off the appendix. We asked him what he did with it afterward.
“Afterward . . . ” my father waved his hand dismissively. “Afterward we throw it away.”
“An appendix isn’t worth a fart,” he answered.
Then he had a question for us. “What are the lungs for?”
“For breathing in,” my brother replied.
My brother thought for a moment: “And breathing out.”
“And the tummy? What’s the tummy for?”
“The tummy? The tummy digests things you have eaten.” Again it was my brother who answered.
“And the heart?”
This time I beat him to it. “The heart beats, thump thump!”
My father glanced at me. “That’s true, you’re both right. The lungs, the stomach, the heart, as well as the duodenum, the colon, the large intestine, the rectum, and whatnot—they all have their various functions. It’s just the appendix, the appendix at the end of the cecum . . . Do you know what the appendix is good for?”
My brother had the answer ready. “The appendix isn’t worth a fart.”
My father laughed and our mother, sitting next to him, laughed too. “That’s right,” my father continued, “the appendix isn’t good for anything. When you breathe, when you digest your meals, when you’re sleeping, none of these activities involves the appendix in the slightest. Even when you eat so much that you burp or have a tummyache and give a fart, this doesn’t have anything to do with your appendix either.”
My brother and I tittered when we heard our father talking about burping and farting. Then he sat up. “But if the appendix gets inflamed,” he told us gravely, “the tummy will ache more and more, and if the appendix is perforated it will cause peritonitis, and that can be fatal. Fatal, you understand what that means?”
My brother nodded. “It’ll kill you.”
I gasped when I heard that. Seeing my reaction, my father patted me on the head. “Actually, removal of the appendix is a minor procedure,” he said. “So long as there’s no perforation, there’s no danger . . . There was a British surgeon . . .”
As my father spoke, he lay back in his chair. We knew he was going to tell a story. He closed his eyes and gave a contented yawn, then turned to face us. He said that one day the British surgeon arrived on a little island. This little island had no hospital and no doctor and not even a medical kit, but his appendix became inflamed and he lay underneath a palm tree, racked with pain for a whole morning. He knew if there was any further delay in operating, his appendix would perforate . . .
“And what happens if the appendix perforates?” My father propped himself up.
“He’ll be a goner,” my brother said.
“It will turn into peritonitis, and then he’ll be a goner,” my father corrected him.
“The British surgeon had no choice but to operate on himself,” he went on. “He had two natives hold up a big mirror and, looking at himself in the mirror, in this particular spot . . .”
My father pointed at the right side of his stomach. “In this very spot he made an incision in the skin, pushed the fat aside, put his hand in, searched for the cecum—you need to find that first before you can find the appendix . . .”
A British surgeon operating on himself: this incredible story left us spellbound. We looked at our father, our eyes gleaming, and asked him if he could operate on himself too, just like the British surgeon.
“That depends on the situation,” he said. “If I was on that little island and my appendix was inflamed, to save my own life I would operate on myself too.”
Father’s reply made the blood flow hot in our veins. We had always thought him to be the strongest, most capable man in the world, and his answer further confirmed us in this belief. It also gave us the confidence to brag to the other boys. “Our Dad operates on himself,” I would say. “The two of us hold up a big mirror,” my brother would add, pointing at me.
That’s how the next couple of months passed. In the autumn of that year, our father’s appendix became inflamed. It was a Sunday morning. Our mother was about to go off to the factory to put in some overtime when our father returned from the night shift. He came in the door just as she was leaving. “I didn’t get any sleep at all last night,” he said. “There was a head injury, two fractures, and a penicillin toxicosis. I’m so worn out, my body’s aching.”
Patting his chest, he lay down on his bed to sleep. My brother and I were in the other room. We put the table on top of the chairs, and then put the chairs on top of the table; three or four hours passed as we moved the furniture around this way and that. When we heard our father groaning in his room, we went over and put our ears to the door. After a moment we realized he was calling our names, so we pushed the door open and went in. We found him curled up like a shrimp, looking at us with clenched teeth. “My appendix . . . ,” he said. “Ahhh! . . . it’s killing me . . . acute appendicitis. Hurry up and go to the hospital. Ask for Dr. Chen . . . or Dr. Wang would do . . . quickly, go . . .”
My brother grabbed me by the hand and we went downstairs, out the door, and along the alley. Now I realized what was happening. Father’s appendix was inflamed, and we were going to the hospital to fetch Dr. Chen or Dr. Wang. Once we’d found them, what would they do?
When I thought of Father’s appendix all inflamed, my heart pounded. I thought to myself: So, at last, Father’s appendix is inflamed. Now he can operate on himself, and my brother and I can hold up the big mirror.
My brother stopped when we reached the end of the alley. “We can’t go and fetch Dr. Chen, nor Dr. Wang either.”
“Why not?” I said.
“Well, look, if we find them, they’ll do an operation.”
I nodded. “Don’t you want to see Dad operate on himself?” my brother asked.
“Yes, that is what I want,” I said.
“So we can’t look for Dr. Chen or Dr. Wang. We’ll go to the operating theater and nab a surgical kit. As for the big mirror, we have one of those at home . . .”
I was so happy I shouted. “Yes! This way we can let Dad do the operation himself.”
When we got to the hospital, practically all the staff was having lunch in the cafeteria and there was just one nurse in the operating theater. My brother told me to chat her up, so I went over and called her Auntie and asked her how she could possibly be so pretty. As she smiled and simpered, my brother stole a surgical kit.
Then we went back home. Father heard us come in. “Dr. Chen, Dr. Chen! Is that you, Dr. Wang?” he called in a low voice.
We went into his room. Father’s forehead was bathed in sweat. The pain was getting to him. He could see there was no Dr. Chen, and no Dr. Wang either, just his two sons, my brother and me. “What about Dr. Chen? Why isn’t Dr. Chen here?” he asked hoarsely.
My brother told me to open the surgical kit, while he brought over the big mirror our mother used to check her outfit each morning. Father didn’t know what we were up to. “And Dr. Wang?” he asked. “Dr. Wang wasn’t there either?”
We laid out the surgical kit on Father’s right. I clambered on top of the bed and together we lifted up the mirror. My brother made a point of leaning forward and taking a peek in the mirror, to check that Father could see himself clearly. “Dad, get on with it!” we said excitedly.
By now he was in such pain, his features were contorted. Gasping, he stared at us, still peppering us with questions about Dr. Chen and Dr. Wang. We were getting desperate. “Dad, hurry up,” we cried. “Otherwise it will get perforated!”
“Hurry up . . . with what?” he asked, weakly.
“Dad, hurry up and operate!” we said.
Now, finally, he understood. He glared at us. “You bastards!” he cursed.
I was shocked, not knowing what we’d done wrong, and looked inquiringly at my brother, who was equally taken aback. Father was in such agony he couldn’t speak, and he stared at us in silence. Returning his gaze, my brother realized at last why Father had cursed us. “We haven’t taken Dad’s pants off yet,” he said.
My brother had me hold the mirror while he tried to pull down Dad’s pants, but our father slapped him across the face and, straining with effort, cursed us again. “Bastards!”
This frightened my brother so much that he scurried off the bed, and I followed suit, quickly crawling over Dad’s legs and onto the floor. We stood there side by side, looking at him as he lay there in a powerless rage. “Can it be Dad doesn’t want to do the operation?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
Tears welled up in our father’s eyes. “Be good boys,” he moaned, struggling to get his words out. “Hurry . . . hurry and fetch . . . Mom. Tell Mom to come . . .”
We’d been hoping Father would operate on himself like a hero, and now here he was, crying! We looked at him a moment longer, and then my brother took my hand and we ran out the door, down the stairs and along the full length of the alley. This time we didn’t think up our own plan of action—we went to fetch Mom.
By the time our father was carried into the operating theater, his appendix was perforated and his stomach was filled with pus. He developed peritonitis and had to spend weeks and weeks in a hospital bed, and then convalesce at home for another month before he could again don a white smock and resume his job as doctor. But he could never again be a surgeon, for his energy was spent: if he were to stand at the operating table for an hour he would grow faint and his eyes would blur. He had gone thin overnight and never regained the weight he lost. When he walked, there was no longer that spring to his stride, and though he might take a big first step he would only go half as far with his second. When winter came, he seemed to have a constant cold. So from then on he could be only a doctor of internal medicine, and he would sit at a desk every day, chatting idly with the patients, scrawling routine prescriptions. After he got off work he would walk slowly homeward, rubbing his hands with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol. When we went to bed in the evenings, we would often hear him grumbling to our mother. “People think you have given me two sons, but appendixes are all they are. At the best of times they are of no worldly use, and when push comes to shove they are practically the death of you.”
Excerpted from Boy in the Twilight by Yu Hua. Copyright © 2014 by Yu Hua. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Yu Hua is the author of five novels, six story collections, and four essay collections. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. He has received many awards, including the James Joyce Award, France’s Prix Courrier International, and Italy’s Premio Grinzane Cavour. Yu Hua lives in Beijing.
“These are expertly drawn sketches of a time and a place, the people thoroughly recognizable.” —The Boston Globe
“[China’s] transformations and what they leave in their wake have become the central theme of Yu’s writing. . . . Many readers consider him China’s greatest living author.” —The Huffington Post
“Compelling. . . . Precise, elegant prose.” —The Economist
“Mesmerizing tales. . . . Showcases this acclaimed writer’s mastery.” —Elle
“Folktales cast in a modern-day setting. . . . [Yu] uses the soft patter of language to wash away at least some of the hardened surface, and enduring mystery, of human behavior.” —Time Out New York
“The stories in Yu Hua’s Boy in the Twilight mine the lives of ordinary folks in small-town China.” —Vanity Fair
“A Chinese writer noted for his ‘popular realism’ sketches a portrait of his country through fictional vignettes of everyday life.” —O, the Oprah Magazine
“Yu’s clear-eyed voice perfectly suits the lives of his characters, whose humanness we recognize, even as it makes us smile or, more often, flinch.” —The Plain Dealer
“How much happiness should one expect? How much security? How much adventure? What sorts of kitchen appliances, what kind of husband? . . . The stories in this collection . . . deal with the treachery latent in ordinary human relationships: marriages, friendships, professional contacts, and the bonds between parents and children. . . . Hua’s ‘hidden’ China . . . is one of regular people: not allegorical caricatures or media archetypes, but men and women struggling to sort out their lives in the early years of reform.” —Boston Review
“Yu Hua grabs his readers’ attention and keeps them guessing and involved till the very end. . . . Boy in the Twilight offers an enduring testimony to the power of the short story and its ability to convey epic themes through the point of a pen.” —The New York Journal of Books
“Yu delivers wonderful and vivid character portrayals. . . . He has exposed a darker, painful side of ordinary life in China and invited us to see things as they truly are—frightening both in their simplicity and their strength.” —South China Morning Post
“[Yu Hua] hones his recognizable minimalist craft to comic and tragic perfection, suffusing these brutally honest, philosophical pieces with compassion and cruel twists of sucker-punching irony that take the reader’s breath away.” —Shelf Awareness (starred)
“A standout collection from an international literary superstar.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Aficionados of the short form will savor these stories as both adroit literature and a sharp cultural lens. Appreciative readers of such diverse recent collections as Emma Donoghue’s Astray and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge will want to add this title to waiting shelves.” —Library Journal (starred)