by Ying Chen
Translated from the French by Carol Volk Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $20, 154 pages
"Ingratitude" is narrated by a dead woman--a suicide, to be precise. She has not killed herself because she is depressed, or ill, or heartbroken. Yan-Zi, the 25-year-old protagonist of this spare, unblinking novel, has another reason: Suicide, she figures, is the best--indeed, the only--way to destroy her mother. "I shattered her glory, all by myself!" the dead Yan-Zi gloats early on in the novel. "I forced her to resign from her position as a mother. I annihilated her."
This is Ying Chen's third novel. The author, who was born in 1961, emigrated from Shanghai to Montreal in 1989; she now writes in French. She sets "Ingratitude" in a nameless, unpleasant, apparently contemporary Chinese city, a place "where young people with no place to live awaited the death of their parents so they could inherit their homes," and where the "hospitals, cemeteries, and prisons are as full as the restaurants and stores."
Although the author was only a young child at the start of the (now-discredited) Cultural Revolution, Yan-Zi's contemptuous feelings toward her professorial father contain traces of that movement's rabid anti-intellectualism: "I had lived in fear of bothering
him . . . of tearing him away from thoughts that were liable to affect the forward or backward march of the planet. . . . I developed a horror . . . of people like my father whose weakness had become a weapon, a green light for every cruelty, an excuse for their cowardice. I kept away from them as from sleeping snakes, against which any act of self-defense would be immoral."
It may seem logical to wonder what Yan-Zi's mother has done to create a hatred unto death in her daughter. But to ask this question is to miss the essential point of "Ingratitude." Of course, Yan-Zi's mother is no great shakes; indeed, she is cruel, controlling, narcissistic and unaffectionate. (In other words, your typical Bad Mom.) But she is not crazy, nor particularly extreme--not a sexual abuser, a batterer or a drunk.
None of this matters, for the problem between Yan-Zi and her mother is not specific or psychological but, rather, generic and philosophical. Yan-Zi feels that her very birth is a manifestation of negated agency, for it was her mother--not she--who decided when, where and, of course, even whether she should exist. "I couldn't help but believe that the day of my birth was already the day of my defeat," Yan-Zi explains. "That's why I never celebrated my birthday--it was my way of forgetting as best I could the subtle humiliation that had been forced upon me. . . . [M]y life didn't fully belong to me, and I hated my parents for it, especially Mother." Only death, then, offers liberation: "I would end my days my way. When I was no longer anything, I would be me."
Yan-Zi's loathing of life, her radical antihumanism, will probably repel some readers, but I suspect that many more will be shocked by her unapologetic (and unvarnished) sadism toward her mother. She relishes her mother's moment of discovery: "I wanted to see the look of horror on her face. I wanted to feel her trembling. My final image of this world would be of a mother crumbling." Indeed, Yan-Zi is less obsessed with her own physical demise than with what she hopes will be the psychic death of her mother: "I would have the pleasure of seeing her writhe with remorse, to note how ugly her face was, invaded by madness. Then I would smile."
There is a convincing relentlessness to Yan-Zi's scorched vision, an undeniable truth at the heart of her existential hopelessness. Still, there are occasional intimations that Ying Chen views her protagonist's suicide not as the heroic act Yan-Zi herself believes it to be, but as its own form of capitulation. For, like her father the coward, Yan-Zi evades the world: "[T]o survive you had to . . . be daring enough to plunge into the pond where the moon waited, where light reigned," Yan-Zi muses. "Alas, I was incapable of such a thing. I stayed at the water's edge, in the darkness. . . . [I] stood on the side of the road . . . trailing behind in life. . . . I saw myself dead in the midst of life." The author seems to suggest that while life may not always be a glorious miracle, maybe--just maybe--death isn't either.
"Ingratitude" is a psalm of hatred that is beautifully written. And it is the beauty, not the hatred, that makes it so haunting.