‘Vertical Motion’ by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Can Xue constructs stories that cleave entirely to their own internal logic – it’s what I imagine experiencing an alien civilisation would be like, where everything is taking place due to a prescribed set of laws that you have to learn simply through the process of being immersed. Her stories teach you to read them as you read them. That’s not to say she doesn’t have influences – parts of this story seem to have been written in the margins of Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’ – but her style and world-making is completely hers. ‘Vertical Motion’ might be about insects – though that is the protagonist’s own word for their civilisation, so for all I know they could be anything – who are either buried underground or in a place that we don’t have words for. Can Xue doesn’t seem particularly focused on analogy; her stories might mean something other than what they mean, but of primary importance is that the world within the story operates as a world, with its own logic buzzing away somewhere, half-glimpsed. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to translate this work, but Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping do a stunning job.

First published in English in Vertical Motion, Open Letter, 2011. Available to read in The White Review online, here

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