Martin Amis’s (yes – an ‘s’ followed by an apostrophe ‘s’, according to his father) Yellow Dog is an ingenious piece of work playing out the arbitrariness of modern language. It highlights the instability of a seemingly ancient linguistic system in the wake of interruption by foreign elements – particularly those completely incompatible ones e.g. Mandarin pinyin.
In this fantastically imagined dysfunctional world of the 21st century, the King of England, Henry IX, has a life-machine supported wife, Pammy, sleeping up in Inverness, while he actively sleeps around with various women, including one of Chinese descent – He Zizhen.
As the embodiment of all stereotypical traits of oriental woman, this lady is given the most sensual descriptions and silkily erotic treatments in all her appearances, as opposed to the usually violent and masculine language throughout the work. But then most of the time the descriptions achieve enormous comical effects:
When the clocks chimed again He began to undress. This would take her some time. The King, already naked, lay helplessly on the chaise-longue, like a child about to be changed. As she removed her clothes He caressed him with them, and then with what the clothes contained. He touched him. He touched He. He was hard. He was soft. He touched him and he touched He.
The joke here is conspicuous. The clumsiness of language when it comes to such descriptions of delicate nature. For in the hegemony of the English language it would not allow the possibility of having a pronoun as one’s surname – imagine having Shirley He or Victor She or Bob I as neighbours. However, when foreign elements come in, it opens up a floor for absurdity in names. Of course Amis, being the enfant terrible of contemporary writers, would not let the joke rest at that. Later on he would further confuse the uninformed English reader thus:
Shoeless, she was smaller, now, and he was correspondingly augmented, when he took her in his arms. He whispered what he had to say, and He whispered back. And He said he understood. […] Now in his grandfather’s gazebo he lay back helplessly, like a child being changed. Soon (he thought) we will enter He, and she will sigh so prettily. And that is everything, everything: just to kiss and to say the name, whispering ‘Her’. Which was how you said it. Which was the sound of who He was.
The abrupt change from a third person voice to a more personal first person (we will enter He) is a necessary move here, otherwise the king would have been subconsciously homosexual. But the separation of the written symbol of a masculine ‘He’ from the sound symbol of a feminine ‘Her’ makes the mistress an ambiguous figure – a hermaphrodite if you like – one who is simultaneously weak (willowy walks) and powerful (her influential concubine pedigree), and one who is misplaced in a foreign culture (the mispronunciation of her name) while flourishing in different soils (prior to being concubine to the King she was mistress to a Scandinavian ambassador). At first glance of her name she appears to be strong, yet knowing her intimately the most sensual sound is made of it; and while making a career out of being a mistress might not be among the most glorious things to do in this world, it nonetheless gives her access to forms of power even ministers do not enjoy.
But the ultimate joke does not stop here. Anyone slightly familiar with the history of modern China would know that He Zizhen was the third wife of Mao Tze-tung. A stark contrast of the willowy concubine, this historical He was an able guerrilla fighter, a trained marksman, and Long March comrade of Mao for many years during which she gave birth to six children fathered by Mao. What other figure can better embrace power and fragility, manliness and womanhood? And perhaps she is the prototype of all modern Chinese woman – with yin and yang – all rolled into one?