Book of the month: Yan Lianke

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This novel has the distinction of being the first book of the month to come from a country that I have already featured in this slot. My inaugural Chinese BOTM choice was Cao Wenxuan’s delightful children’s story Bronze and Sunflower, which this month won the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. Hearty congratulations to its English-language translator, Helen Wang.

My next pick – or rather its author – has been on my radar since my original year of reading the world. Yan Lianke was one of a number of Chinese writers recommended to me by translator Nicky Harman, who kindly undertook to give me some advice on what I might read from the planet’s most populous nation. In the end, I went with a novel translated by Harman – Han Dong’s striking and unjustly overlooked Banished! – however, I was intrigued by what she had told me about controversial Beijing-based satirist Yan and have had it in mind to read his work since then.

So when I happened upon several translations of his novels in Hatchards bookshop on London’s Piccadilly a few weeks back, I decided to pick one out. Several sounded tempting, but it was the premise of Lenin’s Kisses that swung it.

Revolving around Liven, a village populated almost exclusively by disabled people in China’s remote Balou mountains, the narrative follows the unfolding of a plan by ambitious county official Chief Liu. With a view to enriching the region beyond its inhabitants’ wildest imaginings, he resolves to purchase Lenin’s embalmed corpse from Russia and use it as a tourist attraction to draw visitors from all over the world. In order to raise the funds to attempt this, he proposes to use Liven’s residents to stage a travelling freak show, with extraordinary and sometimes alarming results.

If the summary makes you think this is a quirky book, you’d be right. The story is decidedly odd and Yan makes no apology for that. Elements of the fantastic creep in – snow falls in summer, a woman with dwarfism is cured by having sex with a man of normal height, the freak-show performers prove themselves capable of mind-boggling feats.

What’s more, the structure of the book magnifies its strangeness. Weirdly arbitrary footnotes pepper the text, running on for pages and pages, sometimes with notes on the notes, so that the reader is sent hither and thither, as narrative within narrative opens and closes like the petals of rare flowers. This can be irritating at first (and I have to confess I wouldn’t want to attempt this book on an ereader), but when you relax into it, it quickly becomes part of the playfulness in what is at times a very funny book.

It is perhaps this use of humour that allows Yan to get away with some of the more daring political criticisms lodged in the text (unlike several of his other books, Lenin’s Kisses has not been banned in Mainland China and was even given the prestigious Lao She Literary award, although it did cost him his employment as an author for the People’s Liberation Army). Though much of the novel could be read as a criticism of capitalism – the worst events result from the accumulation of obscene wealth by the unexpectedly successful performers – there is no shortage of jibes at ‘higher ups’ closer to home.

Yan, who has admitted self-censoring his work, does a powerful line in pointed observations that could be read several ways. The following is a great example: ‘The government looks after its people and the people should remember the government’s kindness; this is the way things had been for thousands of years.’

Quirky though it is (and by far the funniest Chinese literary work I have read), the novel does share some characteristics with other books I’ve encountered from the nation. The language is earthier and more abrasive than you often see in anglophone literature – expletives abound in some sections and curses are hurled around rather casually. What’s more, descriptions of violence and bodily functions are quite graphic.

That said, the narrative also reflects many of the universal traits found in the world’s best storytelling too. Yan has extraordinary psychological insight and traces the thought processes of his characters with a deftness reminiscent of some of the greatest authors from the home nation of Lenin’s corpse. His depiction of the Hall of Devotion, for example, a room where Chief Liu records (and sometimes embellishes) his achievements alongside those of the world’s great communist leaders is wonderful. Similarly, in Grandma Mao Zhi, the formidable spokeswoman of the people of Liven, he creates an extraordinary portrait of a person spurred on and yet also destroyed by the desire to fulfil a vow.

Clever, daring, amusing and inventive, this is an excellent read. It thoroughly deserves the many accolades it has achieved and is without question a world-class book. The front of my copy features the following endorsement from celebrated Chinese-American writer Ha Jin: ‘The publication of this magnificent work in English should be an occasion for celebration.’ He is right.

Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Vintage, 2013)

Free Chinese literature

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As those of you who’ve followed this project for a while will know, China is very poorly represented in terms of the number of its books that make it into English. According to Chinese translator collective Paper Republic, only 20 fiction and poetry books were published anywhere in the world in English in 2013.

So it’s great to hear of an initiative by Paper Republic to try to broaden anglophone readers’ access to literature from the world’s most populous country. Starting last week, the collective has promised to publish one translated short story on its website every Thursday for the next year.

The stories will be freely available. And if the first two pieces – a witty and touching sketch of the power dynamics in a romantic relationship by novelist A Yi, and wistful ‘The Road to the Weeping Spring’ by Li Juan – are anything to go by, they promise to be a weekly highlight.

The first two stories are also refreshingly short, making them the perfect tasters for anyone keen to sample writing with a view to discovering authors whose books they might like to try. Ideal companions for the morning commute, a quick cup of tea or a soothing ten-minute read before bed.

Photo: ‘relics’ © Mart

Book of the month: Cao Wenxuan

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It’s always a pleasure to hear from fellow literary explorers. Since I began my year of reading the world in January 2012, I have come into contact with a large number of people who have embarked on projects to read more widely and discover what stories from other places have to offer.

I’ve heard from people reading their way around continents and language groups, as well as others armchair travelling through time, sampling one text from each year. By far the most popular notion, however, seems to be the idea of travelling the world through children’s books. To date, I know of at least five people who are doing or plan to do this and I’m sure there are many more out there.

So when I heard that author and translator Helen Wang (one of the many kind people who shared their expertise with me while I was researching my book) had translated a children’s story by the Chinese author Cao Wenxuan, I was intrigued to read it.

My interest grew when I read a little more about Cao and the story, Bronze and Sunflower, in the notes at the back of the book. According to them, Cao is often described as China’s Hans Christian Andersen. What’s more, the story was inspired by the childhood experience of a friend of his during the Cultural Revolution, but didn’t fall into place for a long time until Cao had a vision of the Chinese characters for ‘Bronze’ and ‘Sunflower’ one Chinese New Year.

The result is a moving account of two children brought together by loneliness, and bound to each other through familial affection and the determination to survive. Sunflower is the daughter of an artist banished to do hard labour at a rural cadre school and Bronze is the mute son of impoverished villagers who live nearby. After Sunflower’s father dies, Bronze persuades his parents to take her in and the family devotes itself to giving her a decent life in the face of extreme hardship that threatens repeatedly to destroy them.

Bleak though the premise may sound, the book is in fact extraordinarily beautiful. In addition to the touching affection Cao creates between the children and the other family members, his (and Wang’s) vivid, lyrical and sometimes startling descriptions shimmer from the page. From the way Sunflower’s father’s ‘cardboard folder flapped like the wings of a giant bird and released his paintings to the sky’ to the plague of locusts ‘swirling and thrashing like an army of screaming black demons, their mouths gaping, their tongues flicking’, the book is a masterclass in the pictures words can paint.

The story is engrossing too. With Bronze and Sunflower battling to survive and thrive, the stakes could not be higher. As a result, Cao is able to weave in some sophisticated observations about the realities of poverty. He also powerfully portrays the experience of living in a place where services like health care and education are seen as privileges and not rights – thought-provoking stuff for children in many parts of the English-speaking world, who may be more used to grumbling about than begging to go to school.

Gender roles are a little problematic in the book: although Sunflower is full of gumption, she almost always blunders and has to be rescued from her scrapes by the more ingenious Bronze. The situation is rarely reversed, although Sunflower does teach Bronze to read and write, making for one of the most triumphant moments of the book, when Bronze silences the sneers of a crowd by stepping forward and painting his name on a wall.

In addition, it is slightly difficult to know what age range of children would get most out of the book. The publisher, Walker Books, recommends it for children aged nine and over, and says that it can be read independently by confident readers or read aloud by parents, but certain aspects of it feel better suited to children of other ages. While the narrative’s somewhat graphic descriptions of violence and suffering, and sophisticated vocabulary would test most nine-year-olds, the somewhat naive, innocent tone of the story makes it feel more appropriate for younger children.

From conversations I’ve had with Wang, I understand that this is a common challenge when it comes to bringing Chinese children’s literature into English – an interesting insight, perhaps, into the different expectations of childhood in Chinese and Western culture.

All the same, this is an absorbing and beguiling book. Despite being nearly 25 years outside the target readership age, I found myself gripped by many of its episodes and moved by its clear, elegant and often beautiful descriptions. However old you are, this book will expand your horizons – whether you’re engaged in a reading quest or not.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang (Walker Books, 2015)

China: one in 1.3 billion

My knowledge of Chinese literature is pretty non-existent, so I was very grateful when translator Nicky Harman offered to talk me through some of the options last month. We met in a coffee shop in Covent Garden, where, sandwiched between groups of students and tourists planning expeditions to Oxford Street, Harman shared some of her insights into books from the world’s most populous country, which is home to a fifth of the planet’s people.

She said that, while a wide range of literature was published in China, a very narrow spectrum of works were available in English. These tended to be rather depressing, violent and, as she put it, ‘masculine’ books, which often made for heavy-going reading. She hoped that Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature this year would start to change this by increasing the appetite for publishing a greater variety of Chinese books around the world.

In the meantime, however, Harman did have some tips for me. If I didn’t mind hard-hitting books, Mian Mian’s Candy was a good bet, while Mo Yan’s short story collection Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh rung the changes, being both comic and tragic. In addition, Yan Ge (not to be confused with Yan Geling), a young, witty, female writer who Harman said was like a modern Jane Austen, was one to watch. Her work was not translated yet, but would hopefully be available in English soon. The same was true of Xu Zechen, whose short story ‘Throwing Out the Baby’ had been published on Words Without Borders.  In terms of non-fiction, the work of Xue Xinran was well worth looking out for.

In amongst Harman’s recommendations, however, one title stood out: Han Dong’s Banished!. Perhaps this wasn’t surprising, given that Harman had translated the novel herself; nevertheless I couldn’t help being intrigued by her description of the book, which, by the sound of it, provided an unusual – even quirky – perspective on the events of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. My interest was also piqued by the translator’s comment that the structure of the book, which reads like a memoir, with each chapter devoted to a different character in the village, reflected a popular tradition in Chinese fiction. I decided it would be the book for me.

Drawing on Han’s personal history, the novel portrays the banishment of the Tao family from the city of Nanjing to the village of Sanyu during the late 1960s. Required to ‘learn from the poorer and lower middle peasants’ as part of Mao Zedong’s attempt to erase capitalism and culture from the country, Grandma and Grandpa Tao, writer Tao and his wife Su Qun, and their son, young Tao, must make new lives for themselves. But, while they try to do the best they can with the meagre resources available to them, they must also take care not to do too well and arouse the jealousy of their impoverished and poorly educated neighbours: as objects of suspicion because of Tao’s intellectual past, their best hope lies in striking root and blending in with their drab, new surroundings.

Sinister undercurrents flow through the novel, bubbling to the surface now and then to flood the characters’ lives. From the bleak prospects Tao foresees for his young son and his fear that his wages might be stopped by the Party, to the investigation that makes Su Qun contemplate suicide and young Tao’s memory of the ransacked buildings he saw in Nanjing, there is an underlying sense of the threat hidden in the smallest and most apparently innocuous of decisions.

Most striking of all, however, is not the precariousness of the Tao’s situation, but its strangeness. Little details, such as the ‘good-news troupe’ marshalled to cheer the banished families on their way and the era’s unfamiliar jargon, reveal the profound oddness of the time, as does six-year-old Tao’s misplaced excitement at the initial hurly-burly of the Revolution and his proud boast that ‘our family’s got a bad egg too, and he’s been struggled against’. Indeed, as the anonymous narrator reminds us, the period is in many ways every bit as strange to contemporary Chinese readers as it is to Westerners:

‘I can only sincerely apologize to my young readers or those from another world. The world I describe here was, after all, a peculiar and transitory one, constructed of language that enshrouded and permeated it with what Buddhists call anitya, a mysterious impermanence.’

In the face of such ephemerality, the Taos ground themselves in the rituals of their new lives, devising strategies for survival. These often involve negotiating their way round the alien traditions of their neighbours – from finding a way to decline a proposal to involve young Tao in a childhood betrothal, to trying to outwit the hungry villagers who want to kidnap and eat their pet dogs. However, there are also moments of joy as we share in young Tao’s adventures in his rural surroundings and the family members’ satisfaction at being able to improve their living conditions through their ingenuity. Indeed, the little domestic triumphs of excluding draughts, drawing water and making adequate sanitary arrangements are so engrossing that we are a long way into the narrative before we realise quite what ‘Mr Tao Peiyi, the professional writer’, now ‘forbidden to write his own books’, has lost in the move to this remote region.

The result is a moving consideration of storytelling and the power of human beings to take charge of their identities in even the bleakest of circumstances. Through watching the Taos carve out a life that allows them to retain something of their sense of dignity and purpose in the face of an attempt to erase individuality, distinctiveness and creativity, we see the marvellous resilience of the human mind. Surprising, and rather wonderful.

Banished! by Han Dong, translated from the Mandarin by Nicky Harman (University of Hawaii Press, 2009)

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Taiwan: living on the edge

Taiwan is the country with the most tenuous claim to be included on the list of independent countries I’m reading books from this year. It was a member of the UN until 1971, when the dispute between its government, the Republic of China, and the Chinese government, the People’s Republic of China, led to the UN voting to withdraw its recognition of the ROC and thus Taiwan. From that time onwards, although Taiwan governs its internal affairs independently and many countries around the world maintain informal diplomatic relations with it (the UK government sent a parliamentary delegation to visit the country in 2011, for example), the nation has officially been part of China. Only 22 UN members recognise it as a separate sovereign state.

I was curious to see what literature from this disputed land might be like, so when @markbooks suggested Pai Hsien-yung’s Crystal Boys, I was quick to add it to the list.

Claiming to be ‘the first modern Asian gay novel’, the 1983 book portrays the lives of a group of young male prostitutes in Taipei’s underworld. Following A-Qing, a teenage run-away who was expelled from school and thrown out of home for being found in a compromising position with a supervisor, the narrative explores the precarious lives of these young men, peeling back the layers to show the tenderness, vulnerability and hurt within.

The subject matter and suggestive cover picture of a half-naked Taiwanese youth set up an expectation of explicitness that is actually quite misleading. In fact, beyond passing references, the book doesn’t feature a single sex scene. Instead, all the drama and extreme experience is played out in the dialogue between the characters, in which cruel insults and desperate appeals are laughed off in a welter of banter. There is the boy Wu Min who talks about his plans for suicide only for his friends to think he is joking until he goes home to slash his wrists and the chief who pushes the youngsters into encounters with seemingly heartless abandon.

Yet, beneath the hard shell that nights around the lotus pond in Taipei’s New Park and later at the Cosy Nest café force them to develop, the boys possess a great deal of warmth and tenderness that often expresses itself in surprising ways. When Wu Min is in hospital and unable to meet his medical bills, the boys all donate blood to keep him alive – ‘what we share in common are bodies filled with aching, irrepressible desire and hearts filled with insane loneliness’, observes A-Qing, articulating the bond that ties him to his friends. In addition, A-Qing, who misses his younger brother Buddy, is forever adopting and protecting younger boys who remind him of home.

Indeed, by far the most daring and subversive aspect of the book is not its presentation of sexuality and prostitution but its use of those things to express ideas about nationhood, sovereignty and identity. As homosexuality was illegal in mainland China until 1997, it is effectively off-limits, out-of-bounds and dangerous territory in the book. This enables Pai Hsien-yung to use the crystal boys’ world as a powerful metaphor, as the opening lines of the novel show:

‘There are no days in our kingdom, only nights. As soon as the sun comes up, our kingdom goes into hiding, for it is an unlawful nation; we have no government and no constitution, we are neither recognised nor respected by anyone, our citizenry is little more than rabble. […] It’s as though our kingdom were surrounded and hidden by a tightly woven fence – cut off from the outside world, isolated for the time being. But we are always keenly aware of the constant threat to our existence by the boundless world on the other side of the fence.’

At times, the narrative becomes a little stilted and episodic, with too many characters crowding in one after the other. Pai Hsien-yung’s tendency to stress the emotional suffering of the boys can also be a little repetitive and could have done with some tighter editing.

However, none of this detracts from the fact that this is a courageous and fascinating work from a writer not afraid to speak out against the majority. The book is a gripping insight into a fragile and contested world. Powerful stuff.

Crystal Boys (Nieh-Tzu) by Pai Hsien-yung, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Gay Sunshine Press, 1995)