Did she or did she not?

She slurped up a mouthful, held them in her mouth for a moment, shook her head and spat them onto the table.


Her witchy friend took a long drag on her cigarette. ‘That bad, huh?’

‘I wouldn’t feed it to a pig.’

‘Old woman, don’t you have any chocolate?’

Nothing was wrong with my noodles. ‘Any what?’

Fat Girl sighed, bent down, scooped up some dirt and sprinkled it onto the noodles. ‘That might improve the taste. I’m not paying a yuan for it. I wanted food. Not pigswill.’

Witchy Friend snickered, and looked in her bag. ‘I’ve got cookies somewhere . . .’

Anger is pointless on the Holy Mountain. I rarely feel it. But when I see food being wasted so wantonly, I feel such rage that I can’t control myself.

The noodles - and dirt - slid down Fat Girl’s face. Her skin shone under the grease. Her wet shirt clung to her neck. Her mouth was an ‘0’ of shock. She gasped like a surfacer, flapped her arms, and fell backwards. Witchy Friend had leapt up and stepped back, flapping her wings.

Fat Girl climbed to her feet, red and heaving. She started charging at me, but changed her mind when she saw I had a pot of boiling water ready to douse her. I would have done, too. She retreated to a safe distance, and yelled. ‘I’m going to report you YOU YOU YOU BITCH! You wait! Just you wait! My brother-in-law knows an under-secretary at the Party office and I’m going to have your flea-infested Tea Shack BULLDOZED! With you under it!’

Even when they were out of sight around the bend their threats floated downwards through the trees. ‘Bitch! Your daughters flick donkeys! Your sons are sterile! Bitch!’

‘I can’t abide bad manners,’ said my Tree. ‘That’s why I left the Village.’

‘I didn’t want to get angry, but she shouldn’t have wasted the food!’

‘Shall I ask the monkeys to ambush them and remove their hair?’

This extract above is from the chapter Holy Mountain in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. An old Chinese noodle seller, the main female protagonist, has just served a customer, Fat Girl, who insults her food.

The old woman says ‘Anger is pointless on the Holy Mountain’, and that she rarely feels it. But seeing Fat Girl spit out her noodles in disgust brings out that anger, which she says she can’t control.

In the next paragraph starting with ‘The noodles – and dirt . . .’, we see the noodles already on the customer’s face. The sentence ‘The noodles - and dirt - slid down Fat Girl’s face’ lingers on the image of the noodles and dirt. The parenthetical dashes around ‘and dirt’ slow our reading here, and make us pause and take note of the dirt. And with ‘slid’, we see something like a slo-mo of the dirt and noodles slipping slowly down Fat Girl’s face. We zoom in on her shiny greasy skin, her soaked shirt, her mouth in an ‘O’. Like a camera we pull back to see she is flapping her arms and falling backwards. We cut to her friend, and we see her arms as wings flapping.

What we never see is the old woman’s action of pouring the noodles onto Fat Girl’s head. But did she actually do that? She could have, but Mitchell is not saying. We, the reader, has to decide. If we take the world literally, we would definitely point to the old woman.

When the reader has read to this point of that chapter, he would have come across another mystical character, the Tree. The old woman talks to her Tree and the Tree talks back to her. And Tree can get other living beings (monkeys) to do things (ambush them and remove their hair) for it. The way the noodles and dirt, and the Fat Girl, is shown in such close up, it could well be the Tree hovering over Fat Girl, looking closely at her face and then hanging back to see her falling backwards, and her friend flapping her arms.

But, no matter who has perpetrated the noodle pouring, we still absolve the old woman from the action, because we never see her doing it. In fact, we never see anybody do it!


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