GETTING USED TO DYING
by Zhang Xianliang
Translated by Martha Avery
HarperCollins; 291 pages; $19.95
Beginnings are delicate times, and a novel can rise or fall on the strength of its first sentence. Zhang Xianliang begins his with these astonishing words: "It is no longer clear to me when I began to want to kill him." Zhang then reveals the narrator's intentions to be suicidal rather than murderous. "I" and "he" are identical, split apart only by having to survive -- for want of a better verb -- the unending political upheavals of communist China.
Though ungrammatical, the better verb could...