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September 22, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright September 22, 2009 Xujun Eberlein. Used by permission.


Earlier this year, we ran two excerpts from Jonathan Tel’s (then forthcoming) collection of short stories, The Beijing of Possibilities (the excerpts were “Year of the Gorilla” and “Though the Candles Flicker Red“). Author (and occasional China Beat contributor) Xujun Eberlein recently reviewed the collection at her blog,Inside-Out China, and has allowed us to repost her review in full below.

Chinese stories can be exotic to foreigners, while a foreigner telling stories about China can be exotic to the natives of the land as well. In recent years, there has been no shortage of nonfiction books set in Beijing written by expats, but fiction in the same category remains sparse. Jonathan Tel’s new story collection, The Beijing of Possibilities, stands out as a notable exception, its twelve stories displaying a gripping juxtaposition of realism and allegory.

Tel’s prose treats serious themes in a romantic, humorous, at times mystical way. He is evidently very familiar with Beijing’s settings, geographically and culturally, having lived in the capital city as early as 1988. The stories, set in places and with characters the author has clearly experienced or observed, present Beijing’s distinctness in an enjoyable combination of realistic detail and imaginative musing. Often a story starts by building up a picture of a very real situation, only to surprise the reader by the sudden twist to parable. Or vice versa.

One familiar with Chinese literature might see traces of influence from the classical novel Journey to the West, a hybrid between a fictionalized historical event (a Tang Dynasty Buddhist’s journey to India to fetch the holy scriptures) and the myth of Monkey King (who helped the monk completing the perilous journey). Tel’s opening story, “Year of the Gorilla,” features an unnamed migrant worker in a Monkey King suit. But that is hardly the only connection.