The title of this collection of short stories by Mu Xin is well-chosen, for this is narrative that is sparse and under-stated, sometimes to an extreme. It would be easier at times to detail what doesn’t happen in these tales than what does, for there is a constant sense of missed opportunities, missed connections. In the opening story, “The Moment Childhood Vanished,” for instance, a child coming home from a trip to a Buddhist monastery leaves his bowl behind. Someone runs to fetch it, but then the child drops and loses it forever in a river. The title story, “An Empty Room,” recounts the discovery of a room that turns out to be almost, if not quite, empty: strewn on the floor are letters that seem to reveal a love story that can’t quite be fully pieced back together. “The Windsor Cemetery Diary” concerns a fleeting and uncertain dialogue between two people who never meet and communicate only by turning over a penny in an otherwise abandoned graveyard. As the narrator notes at one point, “I put these thoughts in my diary to show that there is nothing to be recorded” (134). Little to nothing happens, but it is precisely this nothingness that is to be memorialized and pondered.
And of course the room is not completely empty. In the story of the same name, there are traces of some other narrative, even if it can never be fully reconstructed. Or in the cemetery, the periodic flipping of the coin is sufficient basis on which an entire series of hypotheses can be constructed. And even if one day the coin were not to be flipped, that too would send a series of possible messages, such as “I am dead. I have completely forgotten you. I do not come anymore” (140). It is as though Xin were asking what is the minimum material element of a signifying system, the degree zero of signification. Yet he also teases us with the prospect that there might be more, that there might be a whole hidden script that might one day unfold. “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” for example, tells the tale of a long-married couple apparently plagued by an untold story, of what happened–or didn’t happen–one day (the date and time are quite precise: October 26th, 1944, between three and seven o’clock) some forty or fifty years previously. The couple’s niece seems to think that this is a story that has to be told, for the benefit of her uncle and aunt alike, and does everything in her power to engineer a cathartic dénouement. But nothing happens: she leaves the two of them alone, and “there isn’t a sound” (91). It’s as though the pair are in fact perfectly content for the mystery to remain, or even that it’s precisely what remains unsaid, not what is said, that keeps them together.
It would be easy, no doubt too easy, to ascribe this pared-down tone to some kind of Asian reserve. Indeed, at times Xu seems to play on the notion of Buddhist self-abnegation: one story (“Fellow Passengers”) compares us to pipes “through which both joy and sadness flow. A pipe with all sorts of emotion flowing through it until one’s death or until it is emptied” (97). It ends with the dual assertion: “They are insignificant people. I am less than insignificant” (98). And yet there is a fascination with the almost ethereal traces left by such insignificance, traces that ultimately signify almost despite themselves, despite our shared hollowness or emptiness. In “Halo,” then, there is a lengthy discussion of the iconography of saintliness, in both Western and Eastern cultures. The Western halo, we’re told, is “false and awkward,” a “flaw [. . .] so embarrassing that it further inspires the eloquence of atheists” (108). The Eastern halo, by contrast, is more than mere pictorial “decoration” (112); it derives from an “internal calmness bordering on the state of sainthood” (110).
In the end, however, Xin rejects Western and Eastern traditions alike, in favour of “another kind of halo,” much more materialist if equally minimalist, “that exists in the dim realm of suffering” (112). He has a sculptor tell a story of when he was imprisoned “in the second half of the twentieth century, in a certain decade” (113)–one of Xu’s fleeting but repeated allusions to his own incarceration, during China’s Cultural Revolution. In a crowded cell, the artist meets an old man who mentions the Buddhist halo and then points to the cell wall against which the more privileged inmates sit and where:
Miraculously, I could suddenly make out a hazy circle behind the head of each prisoner. With so many heads repeatedly rubbing against the chalky surface, sweat had tainted patches of the wall in circular shapes. Since everyone was of a different height, the repeated rubbing produced circles of proportionate size to the heads before them. The circles were exactly like the dignified light of Buddha portrayed in ancient art. [. . .] I almost burst out laughing–the subtle profundity had to be felt not just spoken. (115-6)
Once the prisons were emptied, then, the halos would remain, a ghostly but absolutely material trace that can only point to, never fully encapsulate, an entire history of power and something like resistance that goes beyond words. And when the sculptor finishes his tale, “We raised our glasses. Why we didn’t quite know why we needed to empty the glasses, we emptied them anyway” (116). Mu Xin shows no great nostalgia for the fuller description and understanding that is inevitably lost; he knows them to be irrecuperable. Such is the way of the world, the effects of time and history. But even in their inevitably incomplete, precarious state, the traces of these broader histories deserve some acknowledgement, perhaps celebration, though we may not exactly know why.