ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – Youth is as fleeting as it is euphoric. Once you have experienced adolescence and young adulthood in all its glory, it can be extraordinarily difficult to let it go. In rapidly aging societies like China, the desperate masses ripening toward old age often flee to snake-oil salesmen schemes like a “longevity pill,” overly complicated Taiichi exercises, and even “Miss Wei Wei, the perfect android to help extend your life.” Human existence is finite and fragile – a thin red string that can snap at any moment. Rather than dwelling on and trying to evade our inevitable demise, Chinese-born author Zhou Daxin mediates on what it means to live in his latest novel, Longevity Park (2021).
Zhou Daxin, the winner of the prestigious Mao Dun Prize, draws upon his literary expertise and long history in the Chinese military to inform his works, of which there are more than thirty novels and short stories. Embedded within the layers of Daxin’s text are subtle nuances of maturation, relationships, and hard-boiled experience, which enrich his text with a wealth of meaning that people seldom get from self-reflection. The talented translator for this work, James Trapp, expertly weaves his cultural empathy and understanding for China into the way he relays the complex meaning of Daxin’s prose. In unison, both masters of language create a story accessible to all audiences.
Thoroughly unusual in its execution, though masterfully engaging, Daxin’s novel is structured like a series of TED talks strung along the course of an entire week – one day for each chapter. Monday through Thursday, the lectures are a series of sales pitches by various shady characters determined to sell the reader strange cures for old age. The central part of the narrative occurs between Friday and Sunday when a nurse and caretaker for the elderly named Zhong Xiaoyang details her experience being employed by a retired judge, Xiao Chengshan, or Uncle Xiao. At first, Xiaoyang and Uncle Xiao clash every chance they get. The elderly man hates the idea of needing a caregiver. He denies the terminal condition of aging by dying his hair black, brushing off any outside assistance from Xiaoyang or his daughter, and flirting with other women. Though after several traumatizing circumstances, Xiaoyang and Uncle Xiao are forced to strengthen their pseudo-familial bond and cherish the hand that fate has dealt them.
Every decision we have ever made stains and influences our elderly years. This sentiment permeates Daxin’s writing. The author forces his readership to ponder these questions: Who will you remember in the final moments before dementia takes away all your memories? What regrets will you have? Who will you be grateful for? In a succession of twisted events, Uncle Xiao’s daughter, Older Sister Xinxin, loses herself to clinical depression, and he becomes physically handicapped with rapid-onset dementia. Uncle Xiao certainly did not expect his young nurse to be the last person standing by his side.
Youth and old age, represented through Xiaoyang and Uncle Xiao, is a story of opposites. A tale of two essential stages of human life that mirror each other. As Uncle Xiao’s body and mind deteriorate, Xiaoyang’s personal life crumbles all around her. The man she has been supporting for years cruelly betrays her, and her closest friend and ally has taken her own life. In a bleak yet beautiful twist, both Xiaoyang and Uncle Xiao are at the mercy of their intertwined and unconquerable destinies. While Uncle Xiao must make peace with dying, he urges Xiaoyang to go on despite life’s misgivings. “There are lots of decent men on this Earth,” he promises her, “Child, we can go on living….” In a brilliant final show of brutal honesty toward the human condition, both the young and the old must confront each other. The two must accept one another in all their flaws.
As Uncle Xiao sits quietly in his wheelchair, unable to speak or emote, Xiaoyang administers her final ditch effort to revitalize her now long-time companion. She must heal him, reverse the clock. Whatever it takes. Using the supernatural and mystical abilities of traditional Chinese medicine coupled with Daoist chanting, Xiaoyang sparks a new life into the old man. In the briefest moment, like a spectacular phantasm from a seemingly unreal world, Uncle Xiao’s psyche regresses into his newborn self again. “Mummy…” he cries. Daxin’s vivid storytelling examines how in our final years, racked by physical and mental deficiencies, humans revert to their youthful helplessness and vulnerability. We require the same love, attention, and needs as when we were brand new to the world. In a series of highly emotional episodes, Uncle Xiao mentally flips through the stages of his life one by one. He remembers every significant moment and person. Though he cannot remember Xiaoyang. The person who has been most faithful to him must, dreadfully, remain a forever-stranger.
“When God first created man, had he done so reluctantly?” Xiaoyang laments as she realizes her friend is forever lost in his still-breathing body. All the gifts given by God at birth are harshly taken away in old age. Daxin’s philosophy bleeds through the pages of this novel: Humans are a far cry from the celestial. Flawed both physically and mentally, and above all – we are tragically mortal. “We should never think of ourselves as invincible,” Xiaoyang wisely explains toward the final moments of the story. Daxin’s tale of love and loss warns the reader not to give up too easily on life while we still have a firm grip on youth and to not try to escape the clutches of death. Our ending is unavoidable and all the same. The best we can do is accept it and “keep on living, living until God decides otherwise, and then we’ll see.” Our only choice, in the end, is to live in the moment.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.