Dong Xi, author of the novel Record of Regret, began submitting writing to Chinese magazines when he was fifteen, according to the novel’s translator Dylan Levi King. Since then, Dong Xi, the pen name of Tian Dailin, has written four novels and is a writer in residence at Guangxi University for Nationalities, China.
Record of Regret follows our narrator Ceng Guangxian through several decades of his never boring life. The story is often quite funny, even though much of the action takes place in the aftermath of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As we meet Guangxian’s parents, they’ve been bickering about two dogs that were stuck in a passionate pose and subsequently got struck by a bus. The carcasses now hang over a tree branch. Dong Xi writes:
My dad thought maybe he’d take the day off and wait for my mom to go to work. He wanted to get those dogs down from the tree and cook up lunch for himself. He was going to braise the choice cuts in a broth of soy sauce with cane sugar and star anise. But my mom wasn’t dumb.
Before her husband can follow through, she takes the carcasses to her workplace, the zoo, for tiger food.
Guangxian and his parents live in a family-owned warehouse that has been divided into three living quarters separated by walls that stop short of the ceiling. Thus, each family is privy to conversations and sounds from the other apartments. But in Guangxian’s case, being a superbly naïve fifteen-year-old, he actually sees what’s going on when he climbs up a post to the warehouse eaves.
That leads to the first of many regrets, most of which happen because he doesn’t know when to stop talking. While perched among the rafters, he observes something he shouldn’t. His father swears him to secrecy, but he can’t help blurting out, “Mom, [ . . . ] I saw [Dad] sleeping on top of Zhao Shanhe.”
He also blabs to the school principal who leads a Red Guard faction, which results in Guangxian’s father being tortured. And it doesn’t stop there. The boy’s youthful reasoning leads to more problems for his dad that Guangxian, of course, regrets.
But at the same time, Record of Regret says a lot about his parents’ forgiveness toward their rebellious teen during an era when China was in turmoil while they manage their own problems: the warehouse gets snatched away from the family by governmental powers, and a combination of circumstances compels the boy’s mother into such despair that she takes drastic and tragic action at the zoo. Meanwhile, Guangxian grows older, but no wiser, particularly when it comes to women:
I thought back to the night that Xiao Chi had climbed up on the bench and twirled off her skirt. I thought about her big, beautiful legs. If I had seized my chance, if I had taken her in my arms, I wouldn’t be here now. I was filled with regret.
Another time, with good intentions, he sneaks into Zhang Nao’s dorm room, frightens her, and due to her hasty accusations, he is dragged to a detention center. Unfortunately, that’s the time Guangxian decides to keep his mouth shut:
The men who were guarding me were distracted with the chaos in the streets, the putting up and tearing down of Red Guard posters, the fight against reactionaries, the struggle sessions. I shouted at the window, calling for someone to question me again. [ . . . ] A month went by, a year went by, and then two years went by, and the 1960s became the 1970s, and nobody came to question me. If I had just answered their questions, [ . . . ] I could have been set free in the first few days.
During the many years he’s incarcerated, the world changes. Chinese women are wearing makeup and perfume, and young people are listening to “pop songs from Taiwan.” Once out of prison, he’s almost thirty years old and finds himself torn between two women:
I started to play a game with the matches, saying to myself: “If this match burns, I will marry Zhang Nao. If this match doesn’t light, I will marry Xiaoyan.” I don’t know what I hoped to accomplish. It was more like a quality assurance inspection than divination.
Many more characters round out this fascinating story. As I read, my unfamiliarity with Chinese names caused some confusion. But a quick referral to a list of cast names that included their roles in the story remedied that. Plus, Dong Xi’s style of writing is such that my attention never diminished.
While he has our attention, Dong Xi gives readers something to keep in mind as they read Guangxian’s story and consider their own lives, a line that became my favorite: “Reality is the best teacher, as they say. I’d learned a lot. If you regret everything you’ve ever done, you stop wanting to do anything at all.”