"Junk Store" starts with the protagonist Qiulin working as an apprentice in a junk store, gradually connecting the backstories of various characters and presenting a scene with a hint of Jiangnan atmosphere.
The first half of the book's description of food reminds me of Wang Zengqi, and the narration of stories about village characters reminds me of Yu Hua's "To Live". However, the second half, which focuses on the officialdom, feels more like browsing online novels, shallow and worldly, even with a touch of fantasy. The good taste that was brewed in the beginning is disrupted by various vulgarities later on, losing its flavor.
Let's talk about the first half. The character development is refreshing, with three old masters in the junk store, each with their own characteristics. The author portrays them with just a few words:
Master Wu is eccentric, Master Qi is cold and detached, and only Master Ma, his face full of smiles, is like a close relative.
The descriptions of the food from that era and place are particularly vivid:
Master Qi said, "After the spring catch of eels, they are immediately salted heavily and stored in the hold, which is the first step. After coming ashore, the salted eels are layered in a jar, covered with bamboo curtains, and pressed with heavy stones for preservation, which is the second step. After a month, the jar is turned over again, salt is added, and only then can it be considered the third step."
Master Ma has a trick for cooking meat and bones, he only uses a sand pot. A cast-iron pot is flat, it consumes oil, and once the temperature rises, the oil turns into steam and dissipates, wasting it. The sand pot has a smaller surface area, so it absorbs less oil. By simmering with fire, it not only saves firewood but also reduces the evaporation of meat oil. Moreover, the sand pot absorbs oil, which cannot be washed away, unlike a cast-iron pot where as much oil as it touches, it disappears with a rinse. Over time, this adds up.
At this time, Aunt Mu always lit a fire in the stove, steaming rice cakes, steaming gauze cakes. From time to time, you could hear the sound of unseasoned firewood cracking in the stove.
These words directly evoke memories from over a decade ago, as if I were in a small house, watching my parents cook delicious food under the yellowing light. There are many descriptions like this in the novel, very authentic and vivid. I think this is one of the biggest charms of this novel.
Now, let's talk about the second half. Qiulin is promoted from the junk store to the county, and the story opens up, but it also becomes less profound. It's almost like a superficial glance, and it's all familiar scenes. In the end, all the characters' struggles for power and desires are directly displayed, losing the depth of character portrayal.
It's like listening to my uncle telling me stories he heard from the previous generation, there is only narration, without any emotions.
At the end of the novel, I think a good ending is designed. Master Qi passes away, and his biggest wish before leaving, a person who was once criticized and overthrown, is to be exonerated. However, Qiulin is powerless and dare not fulfill his wish, so he can only write an elegy after his death. After reading the elegy several times, Qiulin tears it up and throws it into the trash can, and the novel ends here.
In the end, he didn't send out the elegy because he realized that the life of Master Qi, as depicted by him, was so ordinary. It made me sigh, in one's life, how many differences are there between each person we know and each person who leaves us, when it comes down to writing an elegy?
I think the ending is good in that it concludes with the elegy, as if mourning not only the departed Master Qi, but also this era and oneself who has already compromised principles.