More thoughts on the spectacular

BDAL front

Sight and blindness, both literal and metaphorical, are key themes in my novel, Between Darkness and Light. In this passage, for example, we see what Wang Weijun now experiences, having lost one eye in a childish game of William Tell:

Neither Wang nor his parents have ever thought about vision before. Sight always came like breath and was no more to be valued than the groceries that were delivered to the back door every other day. The sensational, the spectacular, was what nature was expected to give as of right. But now that its supplies have been disrupted—now that the very notion of clarity has become blurred and uncertain—they are forced to consider the visual world afresh.

Wang finds himself and his sight a topic of conversation. Aunts and uncles talk about compensation, which his father takes in a monetary sense and his mother understands to refer to her son’s other senses. Relatives who have never previously shown any concern for his needs insist that furniture be moved to allow him to track his way through the house now that his peripheral vision is gone. All perspective is lost. As advice and arguments swirl over his head, Wang himself sits silently and nods whenever a question is thrown in his direction. He itches to be let outside again and longs for the freedom that he seems to have lost through sheer carelessness. As a distraction, and partly because he knows it annoys his elderly relatives, he fingers his enamel eyeball whenever they look at him.

Back in his room, his only true place of refuge, he digs the ball out of its socket and, tipping it reverently onto his bed, rolls it up and down to convince himself that it is still in his power to fix the shifting contours of the world. Encouraged by the sense of calm that this ritual spilling seems to bring, he shuns the light and sticks close to what he knows—his games and his books.

When Third Aunt drags him to the market, he is repelled by the sheer profusion of uselessness the traders thrust in their faces—shimmering reproductions of famous paintings, brightly glazed vases, jade bracelets, lucky charms, ivory earrings, clocks and barometers. None of these luxuries has the power to lift him out of the uncertainty that losing an eye has brought, so he clings instead to the mundane, hoarding objects he already has in abundance—marbles, cigarette cards, even small pieces of food smuggled from the dinner table. With half the world in darkness, he searches for glamour in the objects around him.

Collecting the ordinary becomes something of an obsession, as if laying out his life in a box could restore the simplicity and wonder of the world. As he crams the city’s transitory detritus into a cupboard that is forbidden territory to his parents, he exercises his new eye, rolling it from left to right until he almost believes that it is no different from the other, the one that works, that makes sense of light and shade, that sees what other people see.

Alone in his room at night, he fingers his hoarded goods until their shape and texture become as familiar to him as their look. By day he is less mournful and more tenacious. He becomes proud of his artificial eye, especially when he realises that he can turn disfigurement to his advantage. If he cannot have his vision whole and unimpaired, then he can at least stand out in a crowd. No longer burdened by an eyepatch or humiliated by an empty socket, he discovers, when back at school with his two-eyed friends, that he can bring his class to a standstill by everting his lower eyelid and flicking his enamel eye onto his desk. When his artificial eye becomes a prop in an ongoing piece of popular theatre, with Wang as impresario, producer and star, he begins to live a new kind of life.

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