#18: The Invisibility Cloak, by Ge Fei (trans. Canaan Morse)

Just as I’ve found that novellas often focus intensely on a sole protagonist, it seems they are also well-suited to narrowing in geographically and temporally, providing a detailed sense of a given place and its social mores. Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak (translated by Canaan Morse and published as NYRB Classics Original), at an estimated 40,000 words, takes us into the urban spaces of modern Beijing as we follow the troubles of Mr Cui, an audiophile who makes money sourcing, building, and installing high-end custom stereo systems for wealthy clients.

Geographically, the novella charts a course around Beijing, from the opening page where a residential apartment complex “sits on the eastern edge of the Winter Palace, with its northern face hugging the flyovers of the north Fifth Ring Road”, to traditional and renovated inner-Beijing hutong, the central shopping district of Wangfujing, the Maliandao tea market, and the city’s outskirts where the wealthy, “even at the edges of a foul, trash-infested city […] always find a way to hunt down the last patches of pristine territory and claim them as their own.”

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#7: Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist

Strangely, this novella turned up on a Halloween list of “Spooktacular” books by The American Scholar. Spooktacular? Not quite. Not at all. It is a tale of bloodthirsty revenge, but to me it reads almost like a fable, with the moral made explicit from page one:

Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man would have been thought the very model of a good citizen. In a village that still bears his name, he owned a farm on which he quietly earned a living by his trade; the children with whom his wife presented him were brought up in the fear of God to be industrious and honest; there was not one of his neighbors who had not benefited from his benevolence or his fair-mindedness—the world, in short, would have had every reason to bless his memory, if he had not carried one virtue to excess. But his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer. 

So this is a tale of a search for justice taken too far; or, as the blurb describes it, “that of the honourable man forced to take the law into his own hands […] one of the most stirring tales ever written of the quest for justice”.

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