Flying south of the dragon

Jennifer Eagleton

Flying Carpet - A Tale Of Fertillia by Xi Xi, translated by Diana Yue, Hong Kong University Press $180

A SMALL ISLAND sits south of Dragonland. This tiny speck, 'smaller than a sesame seed', has a world-famous harbour rimmed with skyscrapers, an elite mountain top district, mid-level homes for the upwardly mobile, steep, narrow alleys, hawkers, street sleepers, noisy markets, garish signs and border crossings. A place strangely familiar.

In a series of well-crafted vignettes, we accompany the Ips, master furniture-makers, the Fas, aerated water suppliers, and Falibaba, secret possessor of a flying carpet, as they encounter typhoons, meteor showers, squatter fires, bank-runs and government elections.

They live in the lush green land of Fertillia and we feel their panic as an earthquake approaches from Dragonland, their ancestral home, a once-sleeping behemoth who has been given too many clocks by foreign countries.

The narrator asks, 'Do they want to wake up the sleeping dragon?' Images of growth and change - flowers, foliage, clocks, rain, wind and water - permeates this magical, luminous book. Every object takes on a meaning that transcends its physical space and function - gold jewellery, wooden furniture, perfumes, fire and earth - cleverly weaving traditional Chinese cosmology into the narrative and implying that the old has a place in the new. The carpet metaphor is what carries us through this shifting mosaic of change and draws it all together. Carpets, the author explains, are 'garments that we make for the earth'. Fertillia, a 'door rug' to its large neighbour to the north, has 'protected the feet' of those who have made it their home. It has its own definition of what a carpet is, in its own unique language. 'The door rug can change into a flying carpet, but then who knows if a flying carpet may not change back into a door rug?' Not only does this refer to political realities, but it also reflects the struggle that we all have between the practical and what we truly desire. Carpets lose the ability to fly because people put obstacles in their way.

In a surreal episode, a group of scientists attempts to make a flying carpet but, even after capturing the best scholars in the land, fail spectacularly. Humans can advance technologically it seems, but the mysteries of the metaphysical are beyond them. Only those who possess simplicity and who follow their inner voice will be able to understand its secrets. Which is why only Falibaba, who looks after his flying carpet with loving care, can ride one. Carpets that fly do not always have the most beautiful of patterns, he says.

Fertillia is defined by its geography. But this can be transcended if its denizens are prepared to open themselves to a more elevated vision. At story's end we are invited to free ourselves from Fertillia's reality altogether - but the book does not end there. There is a listener to this story, a young girl who has been absorbing it all, suggesting that another chapter of Fertillia's history is yet to be written.

This is a work of a major Hong Kong writer who chronicles her city with the simple, wise air of a child. The translator has captured the subtleties of the original Chinese work leading readers to look anew at the fascinating minutiae of the world around the them.

(Published in the South China Morning Post, 2000)


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