Dear Yan Ge,
Your Strange Beasts of China (2020, tr. Jeremy Tiang. Original: 异兽志, 2006) reads like a collection of entries from a bestiary: the city of Yong’a’s is populated by fascinating beasts who live alongside humans, and each chapter centres on one of them. “There is a city in the south that is full of beasts — beasts who rage and love, gather and leave, just as humans do”.
Our narrator is a female author commissioned to write a newspaper article about each breed beast in the city. She is an amateur zoologist who has an ambiguous relationship with her former professor, and is helped in her task by his research assistant.
From beasts who die if they smile, to beasts growing like plants or beasts living inside a human’s body and eating its way out, the narrator takes us along her dreamlike journey to meet the city’s fauna of marvelous creatures who possess some bizarre features but – our narrator assures us – are otherwise “just like regular people”. As someone tells the her at some point, “You make it all sound so real. The beasts are more human than the humans, and the humans are beastlier than the beasts.”
The book is a strange beast all by itself. I love its imaginative force, its combination of melancholy and jest, its freshness, its sense of boundlessness. You blur (and thereby question) the limits between beast and human, while also exploring the ideas of identity, inequality, environmental damage, state control, and dignity. Some beasts are given hormones to procreate with humans, some are fetichised as precious possessions, or treated as pets; others are used as furniture or explored as cheap labour. Most beasts are exploited, exterminated, or remain hidden. Some take on the identity of a “human” person; others will fall in love with humans, betray or be betrayed by them.
Nothing is really what it seems to be, sometimes the narrator will get emotionally involved with beasts, and the chapters will be loosely connected by a story involving the core recurring characters. Tantalized by the beasts, at first, we will not notice this story, but it will be happening on the background, like a second skin, and will gradually come to the fore and hold the book together. By writing about and living with the beasts, the narrator will eventually learn something about herself. And, more importantly, it will not make any sense.
“It takes destiny for a human to tame a beast”, I said.” – Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China
About the book
- Tilted Axis Press, 2020, tr. Jeremy Tiang, 314 p. Goodreads
- Original: 异兽志, 2006
- My rating: 4 stars
- Projects: Invisible Cities, hosted by Yamini (shakespeareandspice); Nicole (nicole is here to learn); Natalie (Curious Reader); Stephanie (time to read!); Michael (Knowledge Lost); Wil (MyBookishEmpire); and Agnese (Beyond the Epilogue); Winter TBR; Borderless Bookclub; Reading Independent Publishers Month, hosted by Karen and Lizzie