cover image Mourning a Breast

Mourning a Breast

Xi Xi, trans. from the Chinese by Jennifer Feeley. New York Review Books, $18.95 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-68137-822-0

This superb work of autofiction from Xi (1937–2022), which was originally published in 1992, melds an account of the author’s breast cancer with a reflection on the subjective nature of translation. While showering one day, Xi discovers a lump in her breast, which she initially takes to be a hive, though she’s soon diagnosed with breast cancer. She checks into the hospital for a mastectomy, and while awaiting the procedure, she compares three translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—two in English and one in Chinese—and is struck by their varying interpretations of the novel. In Xi’s hands, the act of translation becomes a metaphor for the work of doctors and vice versa, as she considers that even though doctors are experts at interpreting the body’s signals, they don’t always reach the same conclusions as to diagnoses or treatments (“Dare I say that it is impossible to have a single, absolute translation, whether now or in the future?”). These insights inform Xi’s own misreading of her body and her consideration of the different types of treatment available—she compares the “benevolent” plant-based Chinese medicine to the “slaughterhouse” of Western surgeries, the latter of which she embraces as her best hope for survival. Xi’s matter-of-fact prose and in-depth analysis are deeply satisfying. This is a must. (July)