A review of On the Smell of An Oily Rag by Ouyang Yu

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

On the Smell of An Oily Rag
By Ouyang Yu
Wakefield Press
Feb 2008, ISBN 9781862547650, A27.95, PB

The game of translation is a tricky one, and not just in terms of translation from one language to another. The creation of meaning is a writer’s game. It’s a subtle negotiation between texts, where the meaning of intent begins to approximate the meaning of perception. Translating from the writers’ idea to the reader’s experience takes every tool in a writers’ arsenal. Ouyang Yu is a poet who works the gap between languages, looking closely at our linguistic assumptions, etymologies, and correspondences. His latest book is a nonfiction created in a pen-notes style (biji xiashuo) inspired by ancient Chinese fiction.

On the Smell of An Oily Rag contains a series of brief essays on a single topic that pivot around the relationships between the Chinese and English language. The pieces explore the variations and context of linguistic expressions, delving into the relationship between usage, meaning, and relationships. The style is casual and accessible – designed to appeal to a non-academic reader, and the subject matter is broad – ranging from the sizes of things to the notion of spontaneity; from having an affair to the role of the poet:

Wang Xizhuang’s definition of a poet is interesting. He thinks that a poet is not necessarily someone who can write poems but someone who can maintain a detached state of mind and be gentle and cultivated even if he doesn’t read or write a single word. (101)

The simplicity and directness of the writing is underpinned by extensive scholarship, and the work is both informative and inspiring. Beyond the linguistic elements that Ouyang Yu explores are experiences like migration, exile, loving, eating, friendship, and even going to the bathroom. At times the essays are meandering, allowing the concept to flow where it will, moving past anecdote into historical analysis into personal observation. As is often the case in Ouyang Yu’s work, no punches are pulled (and I suspect that there’s a similar Chinese expression):

Literary prizes are a bore. It’s all about fame and money. And the way it makes a person change makes me sick. I make it a rule that I shall never read anything that has won a prize. I only read what I like. You don’t eat a fish because it has won a prize, do you? (110)

There’s anger here – both political and personal, but there’s also humour. Much of the book is funny, even ribald, taking the analysis into all sorts of arenas – mostly the idiomatic:

Once a writer or poet produced something very good, even if it was a book or a single poem, he or she would “eat it” for the rest of his or her life. (166)

On the Smell of An Oily Rag is a charming, thought provoking, and, at times, confronting book. For anyone working between English and Chinese languages, it’s a must. But anyone who is interested in translation, or who simply likes exploring words and looking for new ways of saying things or experiencing the world will enjoy it.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , and Imagining the Future.