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The Butcher's Wife and Other Stories.

Pinned down beneath her rapist, with blood trickling down her legs and being slapped from time to time, Li Shi howls out in pain, which excites her attacker even more. The rapist is the woman's husband, a pig butcher whose insatiable appetite for sex is as violent as his disembowelment of pigs. He forces his wife to submit to him even during her period, covering both of them with "dirty, dark red blood." He beats her and hurls abusive language at her during the sex act. He demands that she moan and shriek in pain ("like a pig being slaughtered"), and when in defiance she refuses to scream, he tries to starve her into submission. Taking her to the slaughterhouse to see the sharp gleaming knife plunging into the gullet of a pig amid all the bestial screaming and gushing of blood, even thrusting an armful of organs and intestines at her, does not make her yield. In the end he threatens to use his own butcher knife on her. This time, when he mounts her, she "didn't struggle; she just whimpered softly life a small animal." When he finishes and immediately falls asleep, as always, she picks up his knife and drives it into his body in a burst of anguished fury. What she now sees in front of her is no longer her husband but a "squealing, struggling pig with a butcher knife buried at an angle in its gullet, buckets of dark red blood gushing from the wound, the animal's body wracked with convulsions."

Such lurid descriptions of violence and sex blur the distinction between animal and man. The story of "The Butcher's Wife" (1983), based on an actual incident which occurred in Shanghai in the 1930s, resonates with all battered Chinese women awakened to Western concepts of feminism; it stirs passions that anticipate those surrounding the notorious Bobbitt depennation of 1993 in the U.S. The story won for Li Ang the first prize in a Taiwan newspaper's fiction contest, as well as critical acclaim, controversy, even notoriety. The author bares her feminist concerns right at the outset: the plight of the widow in traditional Chinese society, the choice between sex and starvation, the bullying of the brother, the tyranny of the clan, the hollow memorial arches erected in honor of chaste women, and so on.

Feminism aside, the juxtaposition of sex and death (harking back to an early poem in the Book of Songs) seems to be one of Li's obsessions. Even in her very first published short story, "Flower Season" (1968) - included in this collection - death is one of the terrifying images looming in the distance. This very successful story, written when Li was only sixteen, is marked by astonishing psychological insight. The reader is led through the young persona's adolescent mind as she journeys through an imaginary, landscape on a bicycle with a florist who she fantasizes is going to rape her. Both "Wedding Ritual" (1968) and "Curvaceous Dolls" (1970) remind the reader that although her narrative technique in the later "Butcher's Wife" is straightforward and quite traditional, Li Ang is also notable for some very modernistic, existentialist writing. A series of inexplicable, mysterious incidents are forced upon the helpless narrator in "Wedding Ritual," suggesting a dark vision of the world as theater of the absurd. Also dating from Li's teenage days, "Curvaceous Dolls" is a fantasy about a woman's alienation and almost pathological preoccupation with female breasts, with a strong hint of hermaphroditism and bestial voyeurism. "Test of Love" (1982) and "A Love Letter Never Sent" (1984) make up the rest of the volume. Both pieces explore the familiar themes of unfulfilled love, change, the institutions of family and marriage, and extra-marital affairs.

The title story was published separately in hardcover by North Point Press in 1986 (see WLT 61:2, p. 347). Thanks to Howard Goldblatt's editing and masterful translation, this work is now combined with the additional stories to give the Western reader a more balanced view of an important woman writer from Taiwan. Besides her frank treatment of sexuality, Li should also be read for her experiments in modernistic writing, her explorations of social and women's issues, and, above all, her portrayal of the feminine psyche.

K. C. Leung San Jose State University
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Author:Leung, K.C.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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