Raising Whales

July 19, 2012

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In Prospect in April, Julia Lovell wrote about the new wave of Chinese fiction, much of which uses wry humour or playful surrealism to illuminate the contradictions and strangeness of modern China. Lovell, a professor of Chinese, singled out the work of Xiang Zuotie, praising his story “Raising Whales” for its “absurdist take on China’s get-rich-quick fever, as a landlocked village slowly runs out of containers to house its growing whale farm.”

Xiang Zuotie was born in 1974 in the southeastern province of Hunan. He has published one short story collection, A Rare Steed for the Martial Emperor. “Indirectness and allegory have long been essential tools in the Chinese writer’s arsenal,” says translator Brendan O’Kane, “but Xiang’s work takes both to an extreme. He evokes contemporary anxieties without being pinned down—by the censor or the reader—to any one interpretation.”

At dusk one evening, as cooking smoke started rising from the roofs of the houses, the head of our village came back from market with baby whales for everybody. We were going to develop the local whale-farming industry, he said. The best part about raising whales was that once they grew up, we’d be able to cut off their heads and steam them with diced red peppers. The baby whales came in a clear glass bottle. They had glossy black skin and were about the size of a person’s ring-finger, and they swam back and forth in the bottle like tadpoles. We split the baby whales up amongst ourselves and took them home to raise.

The baby whales grew quickly, but that was where the trouble started. In my case, for instance, I had originally put my baby whale in a little eye-drop bottle, which I hung in the middle of the house so the rats wouldn’t kill it. I woke the next day to find that it had grown to completely fill the bottle and trying miserably to move around. I cracked the bottle open as fast as I could and placed the baby whale in a bowl. In the days that followed, I found myself taking out every container in the house: rice bowls, fruit bowls, soup pots, washbasins, foot baths… Looking for containers led to an extra discovery: I realized each of the utterly random, disorganized needs of the human body had its own spatial boundaries as well as systematic correspondence with a whole set of common vessels.

Yet the whale’s growth didn’t leave me any time to think about it. I spent my days worrying about where its next home would be. The last place I left it was in the bathtub—how could I have been so stupid! Coming home from work the next evening, I found my little wooden house bulging and straining at the sides, the boards creaking ominously, until with a massive crack the entire structure fell apart. The only thing left was the whale—head in the bathtub, tail drooping out of the other end of the house and panting at me cheerfully through its gaping mouth.

We all realized that to prevent any more calamities of this sort, we would need to find a way to get the whales to the river, and let them follow the current downstream to the sea.

How to do it, though—that had us stumped. Their hides were hair-thin. Tying them up with ropes and carrying them to the river would injure them, maybe even kill them, while the soft, slippery blubber that covered their bodies would coat the ropes and make it impossible even to tie them up properly in the first place. In the end, we hit on the idea of laying long planks along the path leading to the river, covering them with grease, and then sliding the whales along them, like a new ship being launched from dry dock.

Just imagine how our village looked: we were like ants trying to move a fat, swollen pupa, everyone milling around the whales while the rice in our paddies withered away. Finally we managed to hoist the whales onto the runners. They slid down into the river, while we stood along the banks and watched the pod swimming off downstream.

Such unforgettable happiness. The whales swam and dove playfully, shooting up geysers of water that sparkled and shone in the sun. All along the river villagers would lay down their hoes and line the banks in fascination, talking and pointing at the whales and asking us about how they’d grown. Whenever they asked we’d forget all the trouble the whales had caused us, like parents looking at their sons’ graduation photos: we’d forget the trouble and toil of raising them, and talked about all the mess and confusion they had caused us with an air of hard-won pride.

Yet our sorrows were far from over. The whales still kept growing, until the water in the river wasn’t deep enough for them and they could no longer sink or float at will. Before, whenever the massive domes of their heads rose slowly to break the water’s surface, people would stand on the banks open-mouthed and with bated breath as they watched the frothy white spume roll down off the whales’ heads, and it always inspired a cheer. But the river was clearly too shallow now. The whales’ mouths were exposed above the waterline and the weak jets of river water they sent up simply dribbled down over their bodies. It was hard for us to look at. We took emergency measures to refloat the whales: first, we dug holes in the embankments of our paddy fields to drain the water back into the river, then the men—after receiving permission from the women—undid our belts, faced the river and all peed into it at once. The older men held it in until they were red in the face, just to be sure that they’d have enough range. One of them even said shamefacedly that he wished he hadn’t gone to the toilet that morning. Yet try as we might, we were unable to make any effective improvement in the whales’ situation. The latest word was that a UN emergency task force had ordered an ice harvesting ship up from Antarctica, but by the time the ice cubes reached us it’d already be winter, and there’d be no guarantee that the ice would melt enough to float the whales again.

And still the whales couldn’t stop. It was as if some baleful force had taken hold of them; even in these dire straits, they kept growing, as if growing was the only thing they knew. You could see them, one after the other, stranded in the river, the skin of their bellies drooping down over the pointy rocks, their huge maws gulping and panting. The despair we’d felt for so long finally gave way to desperation: I don’t know who it started with, but someone downstream murmured something that spread through the crowd from person to person with increasing unanimity, until finally it was as if in unwitting chorus we spoke the one wish that we had each hidden secretly for days: Ah, if only whales… could… fly…