Fiction’s great leap forward

December 18, 2011 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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A population drugged by a brutal regime into losing their memories of a bloody government crackdown. A village decimated by a mysterious ‘fever’. A Chinese Christmas tale of a retired schoolteacher who mourns the death of his daughter while pimping young girls to a seedy brothel for a quick buck.

These are just three of the story-lines to emerge from Chinese writers in translation this year. They range from Chan Koon-chung’s futuristic Orwellian novel The Fat Years to Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, a look at the mid-1990s blood-selling scandal and Aids epidemic, to Li Er’s bleak anti-parable Christmas Eve.

They have been published during a landmark year for the consumption of Chinese literature abroad. In 2012 China will be the Market Focus country for the London Book Fair, an event that will push the country’s literature onto newspaper and magazine books pages, boost copyright sales for publishers, and see more than 50 Chinese writers travel to Britain.

The book fair follows a year of celebration for Chinese literature; a country whose writers – often hindered by poor translation, censorship, and a wide cultural gap – remain behind closed doors.

This February saw Bi Feiyu become the third Chinese author since 2007 to win Asia’s most prestigious literary award, the Man Asian, for his tender, sad, sometimes brutal Cultural Revolution novel Three Sisters.

In April, Su Tong (Wives and Concubines, the novella later made into the Zhang Yimou film Raise the Red Lantern) and Wang Anyi (The Song of Everlasting Sorrow) made history as the first Chinese authors nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, staking a claim alongside literary leviathans including the eventual winner Philip Roth.

Amid these accolades a handful of authors have made headlines with their racy plots and courageous criticisms in an era when the mainland still exercises stifling state censorship. Topping the list is Chan’s The Fat Years. ‘I now divide people into two categories – those who have read The Fat Years and those who haven’t,’ said one journalist cited in the book’s English preface. It is a common sentiment about a book whose title has morphed into a buzzword for a corpulent, dangerously complacent new China.

‘What we have seen over the last year is a few very high-profile deals being done,’ says Jo Lusby, managing director of Penguin Books China. ‘What is interesting is that The Fat Years has been reviewed and discussed in the context of overall global literature – rather than as simply a book about China. [The Fat Years] is a dystopian novel that requires a more nuanced reading. I think it’s an inevitable part of the market beginning to mature.’

In the novel, which was first sold in 2009 in Taiwan and Hong Kong and published in English this year, the year is 2013 and the world is reeling from a second economic crisis. As the American dollar loses a third of its value in one day, China declares a ‘Golden Age of Ascendancy’. The inexplicably happy populace have seemingly been drugged by the government – only a few remember a ‘missing month’ of anarchy followed by savage martial law.

In a killer twist, Chan forces the reader to ask: just how compliant are the people in forgetting horrors of the past in return for future riches?

The year 2013 is a future which reads uncannily like the present. Following the Arab Spring in the Middle East, fearful Chinese leaders have led the worst crackdown on dissidents and artists in decades. Europe is now teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession. And the majority of the populace in China happily remains ignorant of gross human rights abuses as the country’s prosperity explodes.

‘The Jasmine Revolution earlier this year has been one of the dominant narratives in [news] stories about China this year,’ says Harvey Thomlinson, founder of Hong Kong-based Make-Do Publishing. ‘On the one hand it has probably fuelled this intense interest we are seeing in Chinese fiction at the moment; but on the other hand there are a lot of people who work in the field of Chinese fiction who want to promote and build up other [less political] writers.’

Chan, however, believes writers must speak out. ‘If you are an intellectual, you need to say the truth, otherwise you are a propagandist. For other people I really don’t know. Maybe they can create a new world based on lies,’ he says in Beijing.

The Fat Years is rightly billed as the Chinese 1984 for raising hard intellectual questions. But as a piece of enduring literature, hindered by a clunky plot and poor character development, the book may well falter over the test of time. Chan leads a number of writers who are lauded as much for their of-the-moment social commentary as for their writerly touch.

This comes as the Communist Party attempts to harness the arts to serve China’s soft power push – a top priority at the annual party plenum this year. The message from President Hu Jintao, speaking last month at the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the Chinese Writers Association, was clear. Writers must ‘unite and be more innovative, to promote the prosperity of our socialist art industry, and try to build a powerful country in its art sector’.

Yan Lianke is a writer who will not be reined in. In April this year the author – best known for his Cultural Revolution satire Serve the People – delivered a blistering speech on the guilt all Chinese authors must bear.

‘The enormous complexity and absurdity of real life in China today is not expressed in Chinese literature,’ the author said at the annual Bookworm International Literary Festival in Beijing. ‘Chinese writers are in evasive mode. When we face this fact, we should all feel guilty. Not one of us should be able to say we have done our duty.’

With the publication of Dream of Ding Village in 2006 (the English translation was published this year), Yan has gone some way towards easing his conscience. The author spent years undercover in his home province of Henan researching the rampant Aids epidemic that followed the 1990s blood-selling scandal when peasants flogged blood to commercial companies for cash.

Initially Yan intended to write a non-fiction book on the scandal and subsequent government cover-up. Worried that the book might become banned, he transformed it instead into fiction. Dream of Ding Village is a bleak, apocalyptic tale of a community wiped out by the fever as narrated by a dead 12-year-old boy buried behind the school wall.

The novel tells a story of a village’s descent into feverish death as greed, jealousy and lust for material goods consume a China in the throes of too-fast development. The fictional premise, and surreal touches, combined with often overwrought language, could not save the book from the censors. It remains banned on the mainland.

‘Writers should feel guilty for not telling the truth,’ Yan says at Beijing’s Renmin University where he is a professor. ‘Chinese literature is now at its best since 1949 – it has made huge progress since the reform and opening-up. However, it lacks originality and uniqueness. Compared to China’s economy, literature is not that vibrant.

Ha Jin, the Chinese-born, American-settled National Book Award winner, agrees. We speak on the phone from his home in the United States, where Ha’s newly acclaimed novel Nanjing Requiem – a take on the Nanking Massacre written in Ha’s second language English – has just been published.

‘The Chinese government has a slogan to build the country through creating new culture. They have spent a lot of money, energy, and attention on literature. And literature, honestly, is getting better. But people are still groping for the right way. Without freedom it is very hard to create a genuine art,’ he says.

Despite this, as the London Book Fair looms, efforts are being made to showcase China’s bright new stars of tomorrow. Last month, foreign translators in Beijing teamed up with the editor-in-chief of China’s oldest literary magazine to publish Pathlight, a new quarterly journal of Chinese literature in translation. Pathlight aims to give overseas readers a taste of what is new, untranslated, and unknown in the West. Despite a tiny initial print run of just 3,000, the journal represents an important development for literature on the mainland.

Editors have been forced to move away from the ‘banned in China’ theme that usually receives publicity abroad. As a Chinese state-funded enterprise, run in tandem with People’s Literature, the PRC’s first literary magazine and paid for by the Writers Association, it is impossible for Pathlight to publish highly controversial works. Instead, they will translate experimental, avant garde, fantasy, women’s fiction and poetry, alongside some big names including Li Er.

For Alice Xin Liu, the managing editor and a Beijing-born, UK-educated translator, the purpose is clear. ‘Our mission is to bring [our readers] Chinese literature you’ve never actually heard of. We are not producing a ‘banned in China’ works. This magazine will be more about the literature that Chinese people are reading. There is room to discover things without preconceived ideas about China.’

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Featured photograph: Yan Lianke

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