Delicious descriptions: Some thoughts on Ouyang Yu’s language

I didn’t get around, in my recent review of Ouyang Yu’s novel Diary of a naked official, to discussing his language, so couldn’t resist another post.

As you would expect in an erotic novel, particularly one framed as a diary, the language is rife with obvious – and consciously so on the part of our narrator – sexual references and innuendo. It is, to put it baldly, in your face. Yet there are, also, some subtle undercurrents. I’ve chosen one excerpt to illustrate some features of the language. Reading it will also give you a feeling for the tone, which is, among other things, conversational, self-confident and unashamed. At one point, Shi Ma (the narrator) describes his diary as “the only confessional” that he can have in a world where there are “no priests of any religious or religious denominations worth my trust and confidence”, but from my understanding of the word “confession” I’d read this as irony.

Names are an issue in the book – as you might expect in a diary. Shi Ma uses initials for most of the significant people in his life: W is Wife and D is Daughter, for example. The women he “loves” tend to be anonymous or go by aliases, which are often flower names, such as Acacia, Daffodil, Goldenrod and Nasturtium. Some characters though have more ordinary names. Consider this:

However passionate and deep one’s love is, it tends to peter out like a brisk fire that burns with passion and heat, only to burn itself out at the end of the day. Peter – what a name in association with the phrase ‘peter out’ – had an affair with Third, the third daughter in her family, a pretty girl who did frames for his paintings, but had to marry a Singaporean woman when he went to Sydney. Third fought tooth and claw to stop him from marrying and going. According to Sam, Third threatened suicide but didn’t; instead, she left scratch marks all over Peter’s back, traces of love when gone, turned sour and resentful.

Love seems to have two faces, one loving, the other hating. Sue is a typical example. Like the name ‘Peter’, this name is portentous. I would run miles away from any woman by that name because who knows if she is not going to Sue you one day? In fact, when a girl I loved reported that her name was ‘Sue’, I said: It’s not a name you should have. I’d much prefer you call yourself ‘Su’ or ‘Soo’. In fact, Soo with two holes in it is infinitely preferable to Sue with a ‘u’. She seemed to like it and said: I’ll think about it.

Besides including an example of the book’s sexually explicit language, this excerpt also addresses two of the novel’s concerns – love and power. Shi Ma discusses “love” endlessly, all the while behaving in an exploitative and generally loveless manner. He is obsessed with sex but desires love, and seems unable to reconcile the two in any meaningful way. Power, on the other hand – who has it, how it is used, what effect it can or does have – is one of the undercurrents of the novel. Ouyang Yu reveals a world in which power, particularly between the genders, is a complex business (with business being perhaps the operative word!) Women in his novel do wield some power, but whether that power is to their (or anyone’s) benefit is a question Yu leaves for the reader to consider.

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