Our final choice for our series of translated works is The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015.
Since the previous year Joe had been envisioning a magnificent plan: to reread all the novels and stories he’d ever read in his life, so that the stories would be connected together. That way, he could simply pick up any book and move without interruption from one story to another. And he himself would be drawn into it, until the outer world wouldn’t be able to disturb him. Joe had put this pan into action, and after two months of persistence it was already producing results. For example, he could even talk business with a customer (he is, after all, the manager of a clothing company’s sales department) and at the same time remain immersed in his stories.
The characters of The Last Lover are searching for love. There’s Joe, who spends every spare minute reading, and his wife Maria who weaves tapestries and tends the mysterious rose garden, along with her two sinister cats. There’s also Vincent, Joe’s boss, haunted with visions of an Arab woman all in black, and his wife Lisa, and finally Reagan, a farmer who farms a nightmarish estate infested with snakes, and who is following his lover, the immigrant Ida.
Joe is probably the closest things that The Last Lover has to a protagonist, and the passage quoted above is a good description of the structure of the book — a series of loosely connected scenes, which jump from character to character without interruption, as in, without warning or context. It is difficult to decide whether these events are ‘really’ happening, or are simply part of Joe’s (or someone else’s) imagination. The overall effect is disorienting and dreamlike, and the closest thing I can compare it to is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Eventually I had to stop worrying about whether things made any sort of sense and just enjoy the ride.
I probably wouldn’t want every book I read to be a postmodern philosophical dreamscape musing on the nature of love, but The Last Lover was well worth the effort.