An intimate apocalypse
Ge Shuyi (哥舒意)
As the title suggests, Xiuzai’s Summer draws inspiration from the Takeshi Kitano film Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏), in that it features a man who takes a young boy under his wing when the boy’s mother is missing. The man is Xiuzai, an IT programmer and gamer who is content with his solitary routine. The young boy is Xiao Shu, who crashes into his life when his mom (Xiuzai’s former lover) leaves him on the doorstep and jets off to Japan for a week. The event that keeps them together for the summer is a catastrophe of global proportions: on June 17, 2018, massive earthquakes rock Shanghai and much of the rest of the world and leave Xiuzai and Xiao Shu among the handful of people left alive in the city.
Over the course of the next few days, as frequent aftershocks slowly bring down everything that’s still upright, Xiuzai and Xiao Shu join the survivors in a makeshift encampment at People’s Square, from which they make risky forays into the surrounding area in search of food and supplies. The destruction has been total. Across the river, Pudong District has vanished into the sea, and on their side, they find few people left alive in the rubble that once belonged to densely-packed high-rises.
In a bloody attempt to save a woman trapped beneath a beam, Xiuzai injures himself and ends up in a feverish delirium. The small group of survivors is ill-equipped to handle the trauma of such an enormous disaster, and its numbers dwindle daily. By the time Xiuzai comes to his senses, he and Xiao Shu are all alone.
The aftershocks have subsided, and the supplies their former companions managed to accumulate relieve them of the chore of foraging among the ruins, so all Xiuzai has to do is amuse the boy and keep his mind off his mother — which he eventually does, once he overcomes the urge to drink himself into oblivion with looted high-end liquor while watching porn on a scavenged laptop. They bond, slowly and haltingly, over the middle section of the book, which is set on a beach where the Bund used to be and feels like a tale of castaways on a desert island.
For much of the time, Xiuzai’s Summer is an idyllic apocalypse, punctuated with scenes of horrific brutality — the aforementioned botched rescue attempt, a subterranean crawl, and an ending that’s crushing in more ways than one. The boy’s a little too precocious for his age, and the city far too clean for all of the destruction that’s occurred, but both of these elements work well within the fairy-tale-like atmosphere that makes up most of the novel.
Ge Shuyi has said that he conceived of the novel after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, and it shows: some of the more surrealistic descriptions reminded me of first-hand reports from that disaster, such as Li Ximin’s hour-by-hour account of the three days and nights he spent buried in the rubble of the Wenchuan earthquake.