Skip to content Skip to main menu

An excerpt from'The Shoe King of Shanghai'

High columns and gleam and the drapes paper-white, the colour of mourning, and murmured conversations and sweat and several varieties of important people, whose definitions he can only guess at, who are mostly dressed in black, negative spaces marking off the histories and levels and types of white, and the absence of tears, the absence of wailing, nobody who seems to be a relative or close friend, midday outside but inside a late afternoon, the light confused and hazy, everyone's breath rising and gathering in the high-ceilinged hall, This place is a city of its own (the same thought he had a month ago when he stumbled out of the train and there he was at last in Beijing West station), a condensed city, yes, large enough and small enough to generate a smog of its own, and meanwhile wreath-deliverers enter at intervals, trailing their lavish aromas, which mingle with incense and floor-polish and an undersmell that might be rotten fruit and money as well as feet, for everyone is shoe-less and so slightly abbreviated, celebrities in cashmere suits are centimeters shorter than normal, a leading businessman is flanked by two bodyguards, dangerous and shuffling in their nylon socks, and he among them (he is the kind of man who is not looked at) painfully aware of his faded shirt and trousers and the hole in the left sock through which the smallest toe pokes, and he is trudging in flipflops along the dried-up irrigation ditches of Sichuan, midsummer, white dust everywhere, the sheep trailing after, and from curls of conversation he gathers the man's name was Qin, he was a financier of some sort, at any rate he had financial links with those who have come to commemorate him, debits and credits, it was an overdose of sleeping pills, an accident it is suggested, and nobody seems upset about this, there are small smiles when death is mentioned, along with long time no see and handshakes, for above a certain income level death is of less account, the rich maintaining their network of connections in Heaven and Hell, whereas in Sichuan there is sorrow and music, the mourners screeching How could you leave us just when things were starting to get better?

A little bit about Jonathan Tel


Jonathan wrote The Beijing of Possibilities, which was longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award. His story The Human Phonograph was the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Jonathan is a poet, librettist, and quantum physicist. He has lived in Beijing, Tokyo, Jerusalem, London, Berlin, San Francisco, and New York. 

See the full Shortlist