Immortality tries to deal with many things – all in one sway. Here too, a changing China is in the grind of things. And amidst this grind, we are shown only this one unfortunate son who resembles the dictator. The story starts with the legends of the Great Papa (eunuchs) during imperial times and jump cuts into a small town in modern day China. It is from here on that Yiyun traces the life of this unfortunate son. His life is juxtaposed with the rise, dominance and fall of a communist country; only the small town doesn’t want to let go. For all the guilt and repression that they carry of being fooled by the dictator, they do not want to loosen their grip on their legacy – the unfortunate son who resembled the dictator. Yiyun paints all this in a single stroke of her brush, lifting only to weave the imperial past to the transient present.
Like in Extra, where an old lady finds an unlikely friend in a little boy and almost makes us relive her youth by play of words and phrases; in The Princess of Nebraska a girl (Sasha) is pregnant from an homosexual (gay, Yang). So, from the elderly in the first two stories, to almost an uncannily sketchy biography in Immortality – Yiyun takes us to the world of Chinese youth oppressed by the conservatism in China. The lives and emotions of 3 people (2 homosexual men and a straight woman) lay bare in front of us. Yang, ironically named, has played a woman in his School Opera all his life. They even had a feminine name for him. Yiyun, as a passing comment, has Yang mention about girls
“We didn’t talk. They played handmaids and nannies, background roles.”
And Sasha reaffirms asking if Yang played the princess. Not only are we told about Yang and his operatic history, but the conservative practice of not having the girls play prominent public roles is being subtly underlined. And in the same stroke she presents Yang, the name representing the essence of male – opposite of Yin, as a boy who is now in a seeming disadvantage due to his own sexual preferences. This storyline is interwoven in the narrative which is actually set in America, where Sasha is waiting to have an abortion done with the help of Boshen, Yang’s lover back in China! Yiyun uses characters as devices to elucidate the plot. We end up relating with the people – all the three leads, imperfect in their own ways, and as if to ascertain human nature, we end up sympathizing with Sasha – the one who is having a baby inside and awaiting an abortion, the one with all the troubles in the world.
And the story ends with a flourish, with an absolute beauty of a line that reads:
“Being a mother must be the saddest yet the most hopeful thing in the world, falling into a love that, once started, never ends”
More as I read on…
PS: More on Yiyun | A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: Part 1