Literature Hou Bei

Nightmare of loneliness
It was June when I came to this little foreign city. Every view looked like a postcard, and every shop window invited closer inspection. Along the sunlit brick-red streets, fresh flowers gleamed invitingly, church bells echoed in my ears, plus bronze statues on the pavement, accordion players – everywhere this feeling of déjà vu from travel shows on TV. Everything was at once so foreign and yet vaguely familiar.

What was most striking was the narrow streets and closely serried houses. But from the train you could see into every garden, and from the pavement you could distinctly make out the interior décor on each floor. If the young woman sitting on her windowsill smoking a cigarette hadn’t waved to me, it would have seemed the stage set for a large-scale melodrama.

It suddenly crossed my mind that I’d actually never been so close to a foreign world. So close that my eyes couldn’t keep up with all the details, so close I nearly forget I knew absolutely nothing about the place.

That whole day, which stretched on till almost midnight, I was busy photographing, tirelessly ascertaining prices, marvelling at the fresh cherries and strawberries, assiduously sampling sausages and beer – I could probably have spent half a year enjoying a single supermarket. I gave myself up eagerly to the pleasure of having nothing to do. All the things I’d had no time for in China and for so long – now they suddenly seemed perfectly normal activities.

And when that day bursting with new impressions was over, I lingered long over them whilst falling asleep…

But suddenly, in my dreams, I plummeted into an acute long-forgotten pain that pierced my heart like a knife. It felt like I was going to choke on a gulp of old blood.

For years I hadn’t thought about all that. But now feelings of confusion and anger I thought I’d forgotten long ago breached the fortress of memory in a single night and engulfed everything before my eyes.
I woke up feeling deeply disturbed and remained in that state for a long time. Not that the new faces here were not friendly enough, the fairy-tale sky not clear enough – rather, it was some dam in my heart that had sprung a little leak without my realizing it.

Previously I’d always thought it was memory that was kept in check by this dam, which I had diligently built up layer by layer with all manner of day-to-day stuff, always making sure no cracks appeared, that no screams got through. But now, for the first time, in this little room in a foreign country, a serene certainty rose to the surface: that it was loneliness that was kept back.

The reason I had to fight down my fears time and again in my life was that I was trying to break free from loneliness. It was this invaluable aptitude that enabled me to escape time and again from seemingly safe areas lest I sink into an abyss with no way out.

On this patch of earth that had produced a Goethe, I felt for the first time how trenchantly real the sorrows of young Werther really were: his idolatrous adoration of Lotte was at the same time a nightmare, for when we extol love and self-sacrifice, we forget all too often that this desperate passion, this fatal obsession, ultimately only arises out of loneliness.

Perhaps writing, too, is in essence nothing but a nightmare of human loneliness.

Even if that’s true, I would never glorify loneliness. For loneliness is truly steeped in poison, a poison that blights our vitality at the roots. To be sure, loneliness may well be a deliberate choice made for example by the kind of people – and there are still some of this ilk around – who believe a lark sings more beautifully if you gouge out its eyes. But I prefer to focus on those great souls who face up to their loneliness and steadfastly contend with it.

Tragedy always begins in self-deception; for a merry play, on the other h and, sincerity and courage are of the essence. I love comedies because – and I’m sure many in the world feel the same way – the more it hurts inside, the louder we laugh. Pain can’t be shared, though those who have come to understand it can appreciate the pain of others and respond to kindred spirits.

Just like Game of Chance, a story I wrote over ten years ago: originally but the product of a nightmare of loneliness, now, in a Göttingen University classroom, it gave rise to lively discussions between the students. Sitting there amongst those young men and women, I could perceive their delight and their feedback, which carried me back all of a sudden to my own student days. I could never have anticipated the emotion and delight I felt at that moment. Such wonderful moments in life only come about if you refuse to resign yourself to loneliness. Which actually makes writing a “game of happiness”.

Who has never walked through that long dark tunnel all alone on long lonely days. Never fear, your agony and deep emotions can be passed over and flattened out into unfeeling laughter. For there will eventually come a day on which they transform into warmth and accompany you at all times. So then, after all, yes, it’s better this way...

Hou Bei (侯蓓) is a professional writer and playwright with a Master’s degree in Literature. Born in 1977, she published her first short story, “Diamond and Birthmark” (钻石和痣), in the literary magazine Zhongshan (钟山) in 1997. A number of her short stories and novellas were subsequently published in Chinese magazines, including Renmin Wenxue 人民文学 (“People’s Literature”), Zuojia 作家 (“Writer Magazine”), Huacheng花城 (“City of Flowers”), Furong芙蓉 (“Lotus”), and Shanhua山花 (“Mountain Flowers”) as well as in the US magazine Today. Selected stories were published in the collection Glass Flame (玻璃火焰) in 2006. Hou Bei, who did her bachelor’s degree in English, has also published a Chinese translation of Jacques Barzun’s cultural history essay Classic, Romantic, and Modern (Jiangsu Jiaoyu Press).

Hou Bei worked as a staff writer for the political department of the Nanjing Military Zone Office for Literature and Art, and later as a playwright at the Jiangsu Province Research Institute for Culture and Art. She is included in the series “21st-century Literary Stars” and in “China’s Hundred Contemporary Avant-garde Novelists”.

Hou Bei has been writing mostly for the screen in recent years. She worked on the script of “Let the Bullets Fly” (让子弹飞), wrote for the TV series “The River Qinhuai” (秦淮河), “The Salt Merchant of Yangzhou” (扬州盐商) and “The Investiture of the Gods” (封神, 2015, soon to be premiered on Hunan Satellite TV). Hou Bei is now a scriptwriter on the permanent staff of Dongyang Sanshang Entertainment Co., Ltd.