Shortly before his assassination in 1223, the scholar-emperor Hua R’ei announced what was to become the most famous literary competition of his reign. Standing before his assembled court, the diminutive monarch took an orchid from among the folds of his ceremonial robes and said, “Translate this flower for me!”
In the hushed silence that ensued, eyebrows were raised, looks exchanged, and shoulders shrugged. Nervous smiles flitted across the faces of his courtiers like dragonflies across a goldfish pond. One man - anonymous, but legendary by virtue of this one unthinkable act - actually cleared his throat. And then a sudden burst of applause broke out, seeping through the room like cherry blossom in an April storm, and the Court Poet Chen Liang, with hand on heart and head bowed, exclaimed, “The Emperor’s wisdom is as the snow on a lofty mountain-peak; eternally renewed, it is always its timeless self!”
Literary competitions were highly popular at the court of Hua R’ei, and hotly contested. There were competitions for poetry of various kinds, and for stories; there were competitions for histories and biographies; there were competitions for song-cycles and plays; but there had never as yet been a competition for a translation. And what a competition! Hua R’ei’s courtiers were asked to translate not from one language to another, or from one dialect to another, or even from one form to another, but simply to translate. To translate a flower. The news rushed through the palace like mice through a stubble-field, and soon even the cooks and gardeners were falling out over it.
In those days, the court of Hua R’ei was divided into two camps – that of the Scholars, and that of the Aesthetes. The Scholars, led by the Court Poet Chen Liang, held that works of literary merit could only be produced by men of learning, and they cultivated a style that reflected their prodigious reading – intricate, allusive, many-layered. In this they were supported by the Emperor, a man of wide scholarship and subtle judgement. The Aesthetes, on the other hand, believed that only the truly beautiful was of any value, and so they developed a mode of writing which, whether rich or simple, was always marked by accuracy of observation and authenticity of emotion. In this they were supported by the Emperor, a man of exquisite taste and fine feeling. And so Hua R’ei, without for a second being false to himself, was able to keep both camps in nice balance, encouraging now the one and now the other; and in the process, one of the finest flowerings of Oriental culture was carefully nurtured into breath-taking bloom.
This delicate equilibrium was, however, regularly upset by the need to appoint a new Court Poet. In the decades preceding Hua R’ei’s reign, the post had been for life; but as no Court Poet had ever reached an advanced age (some of them poisoning themselves, others leaping from high buildings , others again throwing themselves from their horses), the need had been felt to limit the period of tenure in some way. After one or two disastrous attempts at an elective system (very bloody), Hua R’ei had developed his own way of handling the matter, which involved awarding the position to a Scholar and an Aesthete in alternation, but making the award at least nominally dependent upon the winning of a literary competition. To make the balance a dynamic rather than a rigid one, however, Hua R’ei would occasionally give this most coveted position to an outsider - a gardener’s boy, perhaps, or a seamstress, or a kitchen-hand. This introduced, as it were, a healthy peasant note into what might otherwise have been too refined a concoction, and meant that Hua R’ei always had the advantage of surprise on his side.
At the time of the events we are describing, the scholars, headed by Chen Liang, had been in the ascendancy for over a year, and so everyone was expecting a change to the Aesthetes, or perhaps the charming selection of an obscure nursemaid (the Emperor had a penchant for obscure nursemaids). The post bringing with it, however, immense wealth, prestige and power, the current incumbent, Chen Liang, was adamant in his desire to win the competition once again; and it was generally agreed that he, if anyone, had the talent, the energy and the sheer ruthlessness to perform this unprecedented feat.
Chen Liang had a problem, however: he couldn’t even begin to imagine what the Emperor meant by his instruction to translate a flower. A brilliant analyst of lyrical technique, an unrivalled expert on the early Classical poets, and the author of several remarkably finely crafted erotic writings (which merit discussion in their own right), Chen Liang was nevertheless devoid of all imagination. He was, at best, an extremely gifted parodist, and he was aware of the fact. And so, rather than calling for ink and brush, rather than retreating to this study, rather than reciting his nascent composition to himself in course of dawn walks in the Palace gardens, Chen Liang adopted a different strategy. Someone in the Palace must know the answer to the Emperor’s riddle; and Chen Liang would find out who that person was.
Of course brains, if not tongues, were already buzzing with possible solutions, for the Emperor’s literary competitions were open to everyone, and almost everyone longed in their heart of hearts to hold the post of Court Poet just once in their lives. Some people had taken the instructions to refer to the name of the flower, and were already hard at work on comparative catalogues of nomenclatures, from the botanical to the folkloric, in many different languages. Others saw the act of translation not as a linguistic one at all, but rather as a process of transference from one medium to another. Thus they depicted the orchid in ink drawings and silk paintings, in dyed fabrics and embroidered cloths; one head gardener even went so far as to lay out a flowerbed which represented, on a massive scale, the very species of orchid which the Emperor had drawn out from among his robes. Yet others saw the act of translation stipulated by the Emperor as a process of relocation, and so they took orchids, real and artificial, and put them in the most unexpected places – between the ears of horses, at the tops of trees, at the bottom of carp-ponds. One Aesthete even ate, drank and slept with an orchid permanently clutched between thumb and forefinger, arguing that the Emperor’s aesthetic values had translated themselves to him. There were orchid hats and orchid shoes, orchid soups and orchid desserts - the cooks has a wonderful time of it - and even the poorest of the poor, the road sweepers and tanners, the jailers and refuse-collectors, the mineworkers and the common infantry soldiers, made their own attempts at orchid riddles and orchid drinking-songs and orchid lullabies.
All this the Court Poet watched, and he was still no closer to the answer. The day of the competition approached, and as it did, Chen Liang’s attempts to find the solution grew more and more feverish. He bribed and he bullied. He spied and he spread rumours. He charmed and he thundered. But no-one – not the inspired young poet from the mountain province whom he had always so feared, not the courtesan who knew the Emperor’s most intimate physical secrets, not the doctors or the astronomers or even, even the Emperor’s one hundred and forty-four gardeners, each of whom he questioned – none of these confessed to knowing what the Emperor had really meant by those cryptic words, “Translate this flower for me.”
The day of the competition arrived, and Chen Liang was beside himself. While the rest of the Palace put the finishing touches to their orchid poems and orchid necklaces and orchid stir-fries, Chen Liang sat in the library, frenetically searching through scroll upon scroll of the ancient poets. He had come to the conclusion that the Emperor’s challenge was directed at him and at him only, that it was a deliberate attack upon his academic knowledge and his decades of study, and that it could be countered precisely by recourse to that knowledge and that study. The poets, it transpired, had said a terrific amount about flowers, and especially about orchids. They compared them to the plumage of birds and the mists on the mountain-tops. They gave them the names of winds and of dragons. They talked to them, they talked about them, and they talked about talking about them. But nothing that they said brought Chen Liang any nearer to his goal. “I am last year’s heron,” he thought to himself in despair: “already forgotten before the winds of winter have picked the feathers from my abandoned nest.” And he gave himself up to his fate.
But Chen Liang had not become Court Poet for nothing: he was made of sterner stuff than this, and he knew it. So a few moments later, without even bothering to tidy away the scrolls he had been consulting, he left the library and strode down the corridors of the Palace to the Grand Audience Chamber, where the competition was already well under way.
The crowd parted like a paddy-field before a tiger as Chen Liang made his way towards the throne. His fellow-Scholars, disappointed in their own hopes, and even his arch-rivals, the Aesthetes, moved aside with something more than respect, with something approaching awe, at the sight of the Court Poet in his full glory, dressed in his robes of office and destined to be the last to speak in the Emperor’s competition. One by one the would-be poets were sent away, the courtiers in their splendour and the coolies with their straw hats clutched humbly at their chests. At last the turn of the Court Poet came.
“Well, Chen Liang,” said Hua R’ei from his rostrum, “can you succeed where all before you have failed? Can you” – once more the Emperor took the orchid from his robes, once more he held it up for all to see – “Can you translate this flower for me?”
“I can, Magnificence.”
A hush fell.
“Then do so,” said the Emperor. “Speak.”
“I shall not speak,” said Chen Liang.
“Then you cannot win the competition,” said the Emperor, with a little laugh.
“I shall win the competition, Magnificence,” returned Chen Liang.
“Then do so,” said Hua R’ei. “You are our Court Poet. Do so, if you can.”
“I beg you, give me the flower.”
Something in the Poet’s tone was so masterful, so majestic, so magnificent, that the Emperor acceded to this strange request.
“There you are,” he said, half-expecting Chen Liang to crush the orchid underfoot: “take it.”
“Thank you, Magnificence.”
Carefully the Court Poet took the orchid from his sovereign’s hand and held it up for all to see. In total silence he stared at it, as a perching hawk stares at the ears of a rabbit.
“Do you see what I see, Magnificence?”
“I see the flower.”
“The flower I gave you.”
“You do not, Magnificence. You do not see the flower I see.” Chen Liang paused briefly before going on.
“You do not see the flower I see,” he repeated. His voice sank to almost a whisper. “For I have translated it,” he said.
Little remains to be told. Chen Liang was, of course, reselected as Court Poet, a position which he held for some months until accidentally strangling himself with his night-gown in this sleep. From the day of the translation competition onwards, Hua R’ei power steadily declined, and was assassinated by his Palace Guard before the year was out. In some dialects of the region, “I see a flower” is an idiomatic rejoinder expressive of suspicion, contempt, or disbelief, although none of the fishermen and farmers who use it can explain where it comes from. Orchid soup is still eaten in some households.
I See a Flower
First published in Heidelberg Review Number 4, Winter 1996/97; reprinted in In Other Words, British Centre for Literary Translation, Winter 2010/No.36.
You woke one clear June morning and drew back the curtains to see an unexploded bomb lying in the corner of the vegetable-patch. There it lay, organically asquint, looking for all the world like some strange breed of marrow, dark-skinned, of preposterous proportions. Only the rich brown earth scattered like cinnamon across the dewy lawn suggested that it might explode at any second, that the house might explode at any second.
What did you feel as you stood there at the window, your nightdress half open and your hand upon the coolness of the metal window-catch? It was such a peaceful morning. All you could hear was the sound of birdsong and, coming from somewhere far away across the gardens, the dull thin clink of milk bottles being put on doorsteps.
By some strange – miracle, coincidence – the bomb had landed not in the rows of potatoes, cabbages and turnips which you had been so carefully nurturing for the past two months but in a bare strip of earth which you had turned over the day before in preparation for sowing lettuces and chives there.
You must have felt amazement, fear, a welling of relief, and then fear again (the bomb might explode at any second, yourself with it). You would have prayed, I know. You would have asked God what this sign meant. Did it mean that Father was dead? A prisoner-of-war? Did it mean that a raid had been cancelled at the last second, the raid in which he would have lost his life, perhaps? For a second you let an image flood your mind’s eye as it floods the silver screen; thousands of bombs falling on Hamburg, every one of them exploding.
Mother is not looking well today. There is a weakness in the arms she raises to my neck, and her lips are dry and coarse upon my cheek. “How are you?” she asks me, in a voice which is striving very hard to sound ordinary.
“Oh well,” I say, in an exactly similar tone of voice. For a second we say nothing. That is all our news exchanged, all our important news, anyway. Mother lets her arms fall from my neck. She steps back, fiddling with the scarf at her throat. The moment is just about to become embarrassing.
“Come and see my tomatoes,” she suddenly says, in a voice which is animated, artificial and just as dear to me as the first voice: “You must come and see my tomatoes.” We step through into the kitchen. “How many have you got this year?” I ask, staring around me at the familiar things I don’t really want to see. “Plants?” says Mother. “Or tomatoes?”
“Either,” I say, “both.”
Mother pauses with her hand on the doorknob. “I’ve got fifteen plants,” she says, “and a hundred and twenty-seven tomatoes.” She cocks her head at me and I know that I am supposed to understand these figures. I take it that it means a really good crop. “Really?” I say, resigned to the game, almost relieved by it. Mother nods her head, girlishly. “One hundred and twenty-seven,” she says. “Come and see them.” I nod, not knowing what to say. “Come and see,” calls Mother, already outside in the garden.
I could never tell you how much I dislike this house. It would hurt you too much, and anyway, there’s no need for you to know. But every time I come back, my stomach turns at the sight of this narrow hall, that kitchen with its memory of scones and tea-towels. Or not the sight, the feel.
I can feel the very proportions of the walls, the weight of the ceilings, the wear in the banisters. I can remember the wallpaper that used to be in this room, the picture that used to hang in that one. I have a perfect memory of carpets and the threadbare patches in them.
None of the alterations you have made here since Father’s death have made the slightest difference; it’s still his house, it’s still your house as it used to be. The changes are all cosmetic, and they have the quality of make-up put on at the last minute, more for morale than for show. Perhaps you should have left everything as it was, a period piece, a monument. The bookshelves I put up for you look more precarious every time I see them.
“A new variety,” I say.
“Tiger-stripe,” says Mother, “I’m trying it for the first time this year.”
I nod and crush a leaf between finger and thumb, savouring the acrid green fragrance which is like nothing else on earth. Mother loves tomatoes more than any other plants, and she has always grown them.
“What’s this one called?” I ask, indicating a different variety which is already turning orange.
“That’s ...” Mother stares at the plant, a look of complete concentration on her face. “Do you know,” she says, “I can’t remember.”
“Oh well,” I say, “it doesn’t matter.”
Mother stares at me with an expression which is part withdrawn, part angry and part helpless.
There is a frown on her forehead, and her lips move. I know the expression well, for she wears it more and more these days, as she forgets words more and more frequently. “Hereford Beauty?” she attempts at last. “Hardcastle King?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, “really.”
Mother shakes her head. “I could go and look at the packet,” she suggests.
“No, don’t,” I say.
“It’s only in the kitchen,” says Mother.
“Don’t bother,” I say. We both know that the word will come back in its own time.
You always had a love of words. Words and vegetables, the two things you ever knew anything about. That was one of the first things that attracted Father to you, your wit, your love of words. You were intelligent, well-spoken (almost too well-spoken for this area of London), and very, very witty. I know the stories. I know how you met on the bus and what he said and what you said.
You must have made quite an impression on Father, whose background was so dry and stolid. He must have felt as clumsy and inadequate as I used to feel with girls when younger. Ironic that I inherited his stiltedness so directly. Why didn’t I turn out agile and witty like you? Now that you’re forgetting words, I don’t know how to speak to you.
Mother refuses the aid of a gardener, though I have offered to pay for one. She says that the exercise keeps her alive and that any jobs she can’t do herself aren’t really worth doing anyway. For a woman of her age and infirmity she achieves remarkable results: her garden, although small and awkwardly-shaped, contains more life and colour than any other space I know.
Next to her tomato plants, the most important thing is the vegetable patch, which is almost as big as it was in the War years, when she dug for victory and found a German bomb lying there one morning. This year she is growing beetroot, parsnips, marrows, a new kind of lettuce which is supposed to be slug-resistant (neither of us believes that) and a splendid bank of runner beans with bright vermilion flowers.
“Who put up the frames?” I ask, horrified at the idea of my mother blundering about the vegetable-patch with a mallet in her hand.
“I got the Scouts to do it last Bob-a-Job Week,” she says.
“They still have Bob-a-Job Week?” I ask, genuinely surprised.
“Why most certainly,” says Mother, “it keeps old crocks like me alive. That and the mobile lending library.”
“Oh, what are you reading at the moment?” I ask.
“Something by Graham Greene,” says Mother.
“Any good?” I ask, never having read a book by Graham Greene.
“You wouldn’t like it,” says Mother.
“How do you know?” I ask.
Mother just shakes her head. “Come and see my petunias,” she says. “I’m so hopeless with petunias.”
I often wonder what would have happened had Father not gone into the RAF at the beginning of the War. I suppose that everything that followed would have been different, but how different it is impossible to estimate. I can’t think of him without the black shadow of those bombing raids falling on my mind and covering everything with impenetrable darkness. I used to think of him as a hero, plain and simple.
It’s difficult to sustain such a notion of him now, although I have never for a second doubted that his actions were heroic. He was twenty when the War broke out – so much younger than I am now – and working as some kind of clerk in some sort of legal office in the City. The War gave him a chance to escape from a job he hated, and he leapt at the opportunity as only a man can who has nothing to lose. I say ‘nothing to lose’ because I believe that but for the War you would never have married each other.
No, I have thought about it a lot, Mother, I have pieced things together over the years, and I am quite convinced of it. The courtship was growing stale by 1939. Had not the War catapulted everyone into each other’s arms, you would never have got married and I would never have existed.
As it was, marriage seemed the only absolute in a time of complete uncertainty; and Father’s stiffness, his laconicism, his air of untouchability must have suited a steel-blue RAF uniform. You got married in the spring of 1940 with daffodils singing all around. Father smiled like a man who was genuinely happy (the wedding photographs are quite atypical in this respect) and your dress got filled with red, white and blue confetti.
Thirty-six hours later he was up in a Lancaster dropping bombs on – France, I suppose, or northern Germany. You had a superstitious fear that as long as he was dropping bombs on the Germans, no German bombs could fall on you here in London. And indeed, that unexploded bomb fell on a night when Father had to turn back over France with a failure in one propeller – a measure of how close you both came to death during those years. Father baled out over the White Cliffs of Dover and you spent the next day watching a bomb squad tread your vegetable-patch to pieces.
But you both survived. Long enough, I think, to realize that the marriage had been a mistake.
Mother has made salmon and cucumber sandwiches, sausage rolls and a Madeira cake. We sit out on the lawn in deckchairs, brushing the first wasps of summer from our plates as we eat. They gather on the rims of our lemonade-glasses, fall in, drown. These dreadful summer afternoons in north-east London. They have a special quality. It has something to do with the smallness of the sky above your head. All you can see is a square of blue delimited by rooftops and the tops of fruit trees, and every now and then this tiny square becomes a harsh white lid of noise as a jet plane slides past overhead, flying low enough to send the chimney-pots tumbling down into the flower-beds.
Conversation has to cease for a period of up to thirty seconds as a plane goes past.
“And how’s Peggy?” asks Mother in the wake of one of these pauses. I could well wish that the aeroplane were still going by, but I know that there’s no escaping the subject; sooner or later we will have to talk about my Broken Marriage.
“Peggy’s well,” I say, in a tone which fails to be noncommittal.
“And what’s she doing now?” asks Mother.
“Living up in Scotland,” I say.
“Living up in Scotland?” Mother also fakes indifference, also badly. “With this Gregory chap?” she asks after a few moments. “With this Gregory chap,” I say.
“And what about Stephen?” asks Mother. Stephen is Mother’s grandchild, or, as I sometimes tend to forget, my son. I look round, at the plum tree, at the runner beans.
“He’s with her too,” I say. Mother puts her sandwich very neatly on the plate.
“Oh, Robert,” she says. And then again, “Oh, Robert.”
Mother looks round, at the plum tree, at the runner beans. I know what she is thinking. Or at least, I know what she ought to be thinking, because I am thinking it myself. How can young people who have so many opportunities these days make such disastrous marriages? We ponder the question in silence, waiting for another plane to go past.
And then the way he died! Not in any of those bombing raids but twenty-five years later, run down outside Euston Station because he didn’t look both ways before crossing the road. The stupidity, the pointlessness, the sheer futility of his death is something from which I know you have never recovered. You lost your faith in God when he died. You lost your faith in everything.
And, well as I know you, Mother, I’ve really no way of telling how much faith you’ve managed to retrieve from the wreckage yet. I can’t give you a lot of hope. And I can’t believe that even your beloved garden is sustaining. I would love to see you arriving at some point of acceptance, some kind of reconciliation with the past, but I just can’t see it happening. You look betrayed, and you’re getting no better at disguising it. And though you don’t know it, I can imagine the tedium of the days you live through now, because I think about them all the time.
I remember when you told me the news. I had just come back from school and I was poking about in the larder in search of something to eat. I was at the ravenous stage of growing up and I ate everything I could lay my hands on. I was always getting into trouble for it. There I was in the pantry, opening packets of biscuits and cutting off chunks of cheese and suddenly your voice came –
I recognized the tone. It was the tone your voice had when you were really, deeply angry. My stomach turned over and I came out of the pantry prepared for a confrontation. We had a lot of them in those days. I was still swallowing biscuit and wiping my mouth on the back of my hand when you came into the kitchen.
“Robert,” you said in the same tone, and your face was white and harder than I have ever seen it. “Your father is dead.”
Then you sat down at the kitchen table, dropped your head on your forearms, and made no sound for three whole hours. I heard you in the night, though, when I was in my bed and you were pacing through the downstairs of the house. You were wailing like a siren, like an air-raid siren.
Mother offers me another piece of cake, which I decline. She asks me if I’d like something else, fruit, perhaps, or some chocolate, but we both know what this game is about. I want to leave now and there’s no way that Mother can dissuade me from doing so.
“Are you sure you won’t have just a cup of coffee?” asks Mother. “To keep you awake on the road?”
“No,” I say, “I’ll be all right on the road.”
“Tea, then?” Even as she says it, it sounds like a last resort.
“No, thanks, Mother,” I say, “I must be going now.”
“All right then,” says Mother. “Do you think you could help me in with the plates?”
We put the plates on the tray and I carry them through into the kitchen, Mother following at a more leisurely pace.
“It’s a pity the tomatoes aren’t ready,” she says, “you could have had as many as you like.”
“I’ll be back before long,” I say.
“By the end of August the Haversham Standards should be ripe,” she continues, and then suddenly stops. “Haversham Standards,” she says, “that’s what they’re called. Haversham Standards.”
For a second I think that my analysis is wrong, and that she has found her faith again.
Then it’s time to part, and all the awkwardness of parting comes over us. We peck each other on the cheek, we hug each other half-heartedly, we pull away from one another at what is somehow not quite the right moment. Everything is clumsy, inexpressible, almost repulsive.
I get into my car and drive away. Mother goes back to her garden, waters her tomatoes, waits for another bomb to drop.
First published in Story Cellar Issue 6, Spring 1996.