7 April 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Today’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from Jonathan Stalling, an Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma University specializing in Modern-Contemporary American and East-West Poetics, Comparative Literature, and Translation Studies. He is also the co-founder and deputy editor-in-chief of Chinese Literature Today magazine and book series.

Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan is nothing short of astonishing. With over three dozen volumes of Chinese fiction in translation to his credit, Howard Goldblatt is widely considered one of the most prolific and influential translators of our time. Authors he has translated include a wide range of twentieth-century novelists and major figures of the post-Mao era. In 1999, his translation of Notes of a Desolate Man (with Sylvia Lin) by Chu Tien-wen was selected as Translation of the Year by the American Literary Translators Association. Three of his recent translations—Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong), The Boat to Redemption (Su Tong), and Three Sisters (Bi Feiyu, also with Sylvia Lin)—have won the Man Asian Literary Prize. He has received two translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 2009, a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the only English-language translator of Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet Sandalwood Death marks a new level of accomplishment for Goldblatt because of its complex aural formalism and this is why it deserves to win this prize. Sandalwood Death was written in the form of an opera and has long been considered one of Mo Yan’s most ambitious work—the famously speedy and prolific writer took over five years to complete the book. Set in turn-of-the-century China at the dawn of the boxer Rebellion, Sandalwood Death explores the violent intersection of unstoppable global forces on the scale of vulnerable, individual lives. The novel—part thriller, part love story—weaves together several strands of a single family: Sun Meiniang is the daughter of Sun bing, a well-known folk opera star and a leader of the boxer Rebellion in Gaomi County in Shandong, Mo Yan’s ancestral home. Sun Meiniang’s father-in-law, Zhao Jia, is the Empire’s most accomplished state executioner, a master of the killing arts (he claims to have cut off more than 1,000 heads) who is called to perform a ritualized execution of Sun bing so viscerally precise and grisly it must be read to be believed. As an allegory of the dismemberment of the Qing Dynasty body politic itself, Mo Yan’s tour-de-force exploration of the public spectacle of executions is carried out on the most intimate level, deeply affecting characters that readers can both identify with and feel a great deal for.

While reviews of Sandalwood Death have marveled at the novel’s powerful narrative, few have explored how Mo Yan’s novel skillfully assumes the form of a Shandong folk opera. Most chapters open with formal arias with metered and rhymed language which Goldblatt translates faithfully capturing both the aural and semantic sinews that anchor each chapter into the operatic whole. In the chapter “Divine Altar,” the narrator’s voice weaves in and out of the protagonist’s plaintive and wrathful singing. In this climatic chapter, we find Sun bing, a famous Cat Opera performer, in shock after having witnessed the gruesome murder of his wife and most of his children at the hands of German soldiers. Climbing down from a tree on the far side of a river, he takes up a club and plunges into a fierce opera virtuoso rendered masterfully by translator Howard Goldblatt, who follows the original Chinese operatic form with such care that the chapter could be performed out loud. Just as in the Chinese original, Mo Yan’s narration continues in the standard font while Sun bing’s fierce Sprechgesang (a form of intonation between speaking and singing) is rendered in italics: “He struck out with his club, pointing east and striking west, pointing south and hitting north, shattering bark. Willows wept. You German devils! You, you, you cruelly murdered my wife and butchered my children~~this is a blood debt that will be avenged—bong bong bong bong bong—Clang cuh-lang clang Only revenge makes me a man. 德国鬼子啊! 你你你杀妻灭子/好凶残~~这血海深仇/一定要报——咣咣咣咣咣——里格咙格/里格咙——咙要报—/非儿男.” From the meaningless vocables (indicating folk opera instrumentation) to the rhythm and rhyme, the English carries the vitality of the original. In short, this is a stunning translation of a historic novel.

Most translators of Chinese poetry shy away from the challenge of replicating such formal elements, but Goldblatt does so consistently through this 500 page novel which marks it as not only one of the great translations from the Chinese in recent times, but one of the great translations of our time.

2 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by P. T. Smith on For a Song and a Hundred Songs by Liao Yiwu, from New Harvest.

Straying for a moment from fiction and poetry reviews, we asked Patrick to contribute re this translated memoir from poet Liao Yiwu, who—let’s just keep it simple—has been through a hell of a lot and then some. Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review.

With two previous versions confiscated by Chinese authorities before being published in Germany in 2011, and coming now into English with an introduction by 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, Liao Yiwu’s memoir of years spent in a human rights–violating Chinese prison comes with immediate political and social creditials; For a Song and a Hundred Songs is a book that you, the educated, enlightened reader “should” read, to learn more about that culturally relevant Other. Yet, with the author’s honesty, poetical eye and ear, and dedication to his own personal sense of China, it becomes something so much more interesting.

Opening with a brief account of his older sister’s life and her tragic death in a bus accident, Liao Yiwu makes it clear that this work is a personal endeavor, calling her his “first imaginary reader.” He begins before the student protests, outside of them, marking change in China by the era of automobiles instead of with any political changes. It soon becomes clear that Yiwu did not intend to be a political poet, in fact had no interest in the process or aims of such poetry. This attitude remains recognizable in him even today. On a number of occasions, he finds bitter, humored satisfaction in knowing that his most loyal readers are policemen reading his writing, looking for threatening political messages, trying to decipher hidden means to object to, an effort which in the end serves as the authorities imbuing the work with a threatening power that was not there till they found it.

Fpr the rest of the review, go here.

2 July 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

With two previous versions confiscated by Chinese authorities before being published in Germany in 2011, and coming now into English with an introduction by 2009 Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, Liao Yiwu’s memoir of years spent in a human rights–violating Chinese prison comes with immediate political and social creditials; For a Song and a Hundred Songs is a book that you, the educated, enlightened reader “should” read, to learn more about that culturally relevant Other. Yet, with the author’s honesty, poetical eye and ear, and dedication to his own personal sense of China, it becomes something so much more interesting.

Opening with a brief account of his older sister’s life and her tragic death in a bus accident, Liao Yiwu makes it clear that this work is a personal endeavor, calling her his “first imaginary reader.” He begins before the student protests, outside of them, marking change in China by the era of automobiles instead of with any political changes. It soon becomes clear that Yiwu did not intend to be a political poet, in fact had no interest in the process or aims of such poetry. This attitude remains recognizable in him even today. On a number of occasions, he finds bitter, humored satisfaction in knowing that his most loyal readers are policemen reading his writing, looking for threatening political messages, trying to decipher hidden means to object to, an effort which in the end serves as the authorities imbuing the work with a threatening power that was not there till they found it.

The poem that lands him in jail (“The Massacre,” published at the end of the book in an English translation by one of Yiwu’s most driven counterrevolutionary friends, Michael Day), comes as the memoir itself does: not from political or cultural goals, but from a consistent attempt to recognize humanity in both compassion and cruelty. He is unflinching in showing that compassion and cruelty are a package deal of being human. Before his arrest, he portrays himself as a selfish, distant husband, capable of violence against his wife and others. In prison, at times he plays himself the monkish hero, at other times a brute, other times simply casually mean; guards can be kind and reasonable, they also torture prisoners for fun; prisoners protect, care for, and even love each other, they also humiliate, beat, and rape each other (of all the seemingly never-ending stomach-churning difficult passages to read, the “menu” of torture and humiliation options that inmates serve each other is one of the most difficult, emphasized by its bare-bones telling). Early on, Yiwu tells us that he “never intended to be a hero, but in a country where insanity ruled, I had to take a stand. ‘Massacre’ was my art and my art was my protest.” Notably, this, one of his strongest statements on the poem, comes after showing not the insanity of those in power, but the cruelty and insanity the average, “brave and fearless” small-town Chinese are capable of.

This ability to see complexities keeps For a Song and a Hundred Songs an interesting read in other ways. There is a freshness in the book, even toward the end of his time in prison when tales seem to become redundant (which is a humbling, embarrassing complaint as a reader when the writer lived through these horrific conditions for years). There is no absolute way of things in Yiwu’s world—after Yiwu states his poem is his “only reason to live,” one of his fellow inmates tells him: “Only a lunatic clings to a set rule.” Yiwu never sees completeness in the totalitarian state. The state can admit fault, but deny ever doing so later; guards can be brutal rulers, but be undermined by clever prisoners, prisoners rule each other, but their leaders can fall from power. The inmates on death row, with the clearest, nearest end, are often the ones who manage to hold onto power most tightly.

The prose moves between straightforward, no-nonsense accounting of fact and event, which makes for a quick, page-turning reading (helped along by the many brief chapters, a decision made by the translator, presumably to help the simple-minded American, so normally incapable of reading long chapters), and a neat, keen attention to all details. These details come in two basic types: those which exist in baseness, the layout of a cell, exactly how two prisoners handcuffed together make it through their days, the smells that one sleeps with when their bed is next to a toilet, or the barely-sustaining food they are fed; and in the poetic, kissing of a car window in a gesture toward a nearby butterfly, the prisoners’ attention to a dove that visits them in the prison yard, Yiwu’s learning to play the flute and listening to his teacher play from cells away. All of his details give the memoir its strongest life. It is easy to read historical fiction about Tiananmen Square and the protests, but when he tells of pickpockets and burglars posting notices announcing moratoriums on their work in support of the protests, you can live with the story instead of educating yourself about the events. The hardships of prison life can be easily documented, but moments like Yiwu sharing his inspiration to put toothpaste in his anus to cool off in a cruel heat, and the strive against other hardships has brightness. This isn’t to say that the prose is continually grounded; Yiwu’s poetics allow him to move past the plainness that can be associated with memoir, as when people become animals continually throughout the book (late in the book, I chose a random chapter and counted: five animal associations in little over four pages). He takes freedom in movement, like when a prisoner digging in garbage for food begins “thin as a monkey” before fully becoming a monkey, only to then begin to transform into a worm: “The hungry monkey jumped up and wiggled his way into the crowd like a worm.” There are times when the writing simply moves the story forward, and there are times when the aspirations of aesthetics or twists of sight don’t reach their aims and fall dead, but never enough to turn one away.

Wenguans Huang’s translation of For a Song and a Hundred Songs brings a new voice and story to a larger tradition. Numerous references to Solzehnitsyn, Orwell, and Kundera are made. They are part of a conversation in which Yiwu would be a silent participant were it not for his freedom in Germany and Huang’s translation in English. Yiwu writes as a Chinese man under a totalitarian rule, and he makes this perspective clear, though quietly insisting on presenting a version of China that he has faith in and loves, as when he embarrasses an interrogator by claiming to have been on his way to meet Ma Bufang, who the interrogator eventually remembers as a Chinese warlord from the twentieth century; or when, at the end of the book, Yiwu learns to play the flute on a hollow bamboo stick from an illiterate monk. Yiwu’s China is not only the government, or the development of capitalist system, but as a poet who “dream[s] of the dead,” it is the past and the future, but also the complex, heroic, and selfish individual he portrays himself to be.

If asked what I learned about China in reading Yiwu’s memoir, my answer is simple: the expression isn’t “two peas in a pod,” but rather “two melons from the same vine.”

4 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This morning, I talked to a journalist for quite a while about an article she’s writing on publishing Chinese literature in translation. On of the prompts for her article is Pathlight: New Chinese Writing, a magazine that I haven’t mention on here before, but definitely should have.

In addition to a general interest in this magazine—how much do you know about what’s going on in Chinese literature?—it’s also worth mentioning because it’s now available through both Amazon and Apple for $6.99. (Which is a decent price for the 277-page Winter issue.)

The complete table of contents for the Winter issue can be found here and contains Mo Yan’s Nobel Lecture, along with other pieces about him and his work, along with nine works of fiction and works from ten poets—none of which I’m currently familiar with.

It is kind of stunning that given the size of China, the insane number of writers who live there, and the general interest in what’s going on in the country on the whole, there were only 16 works by Chinese writers translated into English and published here in 2012. One can trot out all the normal reasons to explain why this might be the case, but the biggest in my mind is the utter lack of awareness among U.S. editors as to what’s going on in Chinese literature these days.

Which is why I’m going to be reading more issues of Pathlight . . .

24 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.

Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan, translated from the Chinese by Lucas Klein, and published by New Directions.

Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.

When I had the chance to meet the Chinese poet Xi Chuan at a conference on translation in Beijing, I asked him about the choice to write prose poems. Prose poems make up approximately half of Notes on the Mosquito, his selected work translated by Lucas Klein. He responded that years ago, an artist asked if he would write a poem in relation to a photograph of someone washing with a plastic wash basin. He told this artist that he did not know how to write about plastic basins, only wooden ones. Prose was a way for Xi Chuan’s poems to step outside of the imagery and language of traditional Chinese poetry and reenter with a different idiom and perspective. Xi Chuan’s prose poems are nodes of intense and felt thinking in relation to China’s present, expressed in a voice that is starkly contemporary and layered with history. Form and voice in Xi Chuan’s work feel like rooms where impossible thinking explains everything. In one poem he writes:

In a crowd of people some people are not people, just as in a flock of eagles some eagles are not eagles; some eagles are forced to wander through alleyways, some people are forced to fly in the sky.

As much as Xi Chuan’s prose poems step outside of classical poetry to look back in, his lineated verse voraciously considers beyond the borders of China to expand a framework tied to the history of Chinese poetry, reframing the frame and what is beyond it. In a poem that reflects on turning thirty, Xi Chuan writes:

in my first decade
the moon revealed its silent craters
while under the moon, in the town I lived in
a clatter of exorcismal gongs and shouts in the street
     my limping uncle swore in the courtyard
     careless I met with a white rooster’s kiss
     and a girl pulled down her pants in front of me…
hail bounced in exhaustion on the road to the commune
     I entered an immaculate school and studied revolution

Here, lyrical observations on symbols of the natural world intermix with the surreal, the political, and the daily. In another poem, Xi Chuan writes:

even the moonlight is polluted blurring our shadows
even the mountaintops grow like fissures brewing

even the Tang Dynasty fell in the end
even the dumpsters have people living in them . . .

This is a poem of nihilistic momentum. Past dynasties can illustrate a mindset and so can polluted skies and ancient mountains—all re-envisioned in Xi Chuan’s verse.

So many of us are curious about how China sees itself, and so is Xi Chuan. Throughout the book, he reflects on, interrogates, builds up, tears apart, repaints and enacts what modern China means. This is, of course, a huge topic, and one feels the kinetic struggle in language to figure China’s dichotomies; the reader participates in the erratic dance between country and self, between an interior dialogue and a public setting forth. The poems are neither distanced considerations nor fleeting impressions. Rather, we see a mind using everything at hand—from ancient history to the senses, from the philosophers to the annoyance of neighbors, and sometimes what comes through most is this sense of urgency. Here, urgency feels like action against a fixed and false sense of the present. Thinking is political and personal, predetermined and endlessly open. Xi Chuan writes:

Trees eavesdrop on trees, birds eavesdrop on birds; when a viper stiffens and attacks a passing human it becomes human . . . The truth cannot be public, echoless thoughts are hard to sing.

This is not nature poetry and yet it is. It is not political and is. It is impersonal and personal and cold and emotional. It is foreign and very near.

Lucas Klein, brings the poems into an English that feels lively and forceful, apparent in both the lineated and the prose poems, all of which sound intriguingly new and yet spoken by a familiar friend. He has not made these poems American, but rather allowed us to hear Xi Chuan’s poetics and ideas in an American idiom, in an English that is alive with personality. Klein’s knowledge of Chinese culture and history allows references to appear without explanation or odd framing. Rather, he translates the impulse of the poems so that we might eavesdrop on one of the more important conversations about national identity happening in poetry.

4 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Atlas by Dung Kai-Cheung, translated from the Chinese by Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall, and published by Columbia University Press

Having wanted to read this book for months, I took the opportunity to snag this for myself when we were lining people up to write for this series. And I’m damn glad that I did.

1. It’s not Jackie Chan. As Bonnie McDougall points out in her introduction, most depictions of Hong Kong that the typical American reader are familiar with are written by outsiders. John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy. Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong. John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour. Basically all the books on this list. Not so with Atlas! Dung Kai-Cheung is Hong Kong’s greatest novelist, and as such, offers a different—and more genuine?—perspective on this really interesting part of the world. From Kai-Cheung’s introduction:

There are enough fictitious Hong Kongs circulating around the world. It doesn’t matter so much how real or false these fictions are but how they are made up. The Hong Kong of Tai-Pan and Suzie Wong, a mixture of economic adventures, political intrigues, sexual encounters, and romances; the Hong Kong of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li kung fu fighting their way through to the international scene; the Hong Kong of John Woo’s gangster heroes shooting doublehanded and Stephen Chow’s underdog antiheroes making nonsensical jokes. And yet, in spite of these eye-catching exposures, Hong Kong remains invisible. A large part of the reality of life here is unrepresented, unrevealed, and ignored. Hong Kong’s martial arts fiction, commercial movies, and pop songs are successful in East Asia and even farther abroad, but for all the talents, insights, and creativity of its writers, Hong Kong literature attracts minimal attention—not just internationally but even in mainland China. I am not claiming that literature represents a Hong Kong more real than the movies, but it has its unique role and methods and thus yields different meanings. It is not just a different way of world-representing but also a different way of world-building, that is, creating conditions for understanding, molding, preserving, and changing the world that we live in.

For this alone, Atlas deserves to win.

2. It’s like Calvino plus Borges . . . At first glance, Atlas sounds a lot like Calvino’s Invisible Cities with a touch of the Borges:

Set in the long-lost City of Victoria (a fictional world similar to Hong Kong), Atlas is written from the unified perspective of future archaeologists struggling to rebuild a thrilling metropolis. Divided into four sections—“Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs”—the novel reimagines Victoria through maps and other historical documents and artifacts, mixing real-world scenarios with purely imaginary people and events while incorporating anecdotes and actual and fictional social commentary and critique.

And in his fanciful writing, Dung does bring both writers to mind, such as in this bit about a plaza enclosed by a square street:

The only way of finding one’s way in the square street seems to have been by determining the direction. The four sides of the square street were fixed according to the four points of the compass, north, south, east, and west, but because there was no door numbers along the street (for no one could say where the street began and where it ended), it was rather difficult to determine if one were proceeding along the east street, the west street, the north street, or the south street. To be sure, this was not a problem for the local inhabitants, because whatever side of the street they lived on made no difference to them. Another special characteristic of the square street was that there was a flight of steps at each corner. It was said that if you kept turning right as you walked, the steps would lead upward, but if you went in the opposit direction, to the left, the steps would lead down. But whether you went up or down, you would still return to your original place by way of the four flights of steps and the four corners. Experts in cartography maintain that such phenomena can occur only on the surface of maps, or in pictures with fanciful optical illusions.

3. . . . except that it’s not. This isn’t just a derivative attempt to write something Calvino-esque or Borgesian. (Or, Calgesian? Borvino?) A unique combination of cartography, fabulism, and philosophy, Atlas brings up a ton of interesting questions about how the world can be (or should be) represented and how we read these representations. It’s definitely in the vein of those other two authors (who are mentioned in the book, along with Barthes and Umberto Eco), but it’s also something quite different and all of its own. (The titles Dung’s other novels make these influences even more obvious: The Rose of the Name and Visible Cities.) At times, this is more cerebral and heady than Calvino’s work, which makes this even more interesting.

4. It’s written in Cantonese and Mandarin. Esther Allen talked to my class the other week about José Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia and emphasized how she tried to retain the mixture of languages present in the original by including Russian texts, Japanese script, bits in Spanish, etc. This wasn’t just an aesthetic decision, but a political one as well. In her own words:

For the reader of the original text, the book’s origin in the Spanish-speaking world is evident in its every word and requires no further emphasis. As its translator into English, my overwhelming primary allegiance was to the Spanish language. If readers of the English translation were allowed to forget that the book was first written in Spanish—not Russian or English—and was translated from Spanish—not Russian—the book risked being denatured, stripped of all the historic and cultural meaning that derives from the specific language in which it was first written.

The translation therefore explicitly sought to emphasize the Spanish-ness of this text about Russia, but in a way that did not undermine the original’s will to leave its Latin American origins in the deep background. Keeping certain words or phrases in the source language, always an option, here became an imperative, and the English retains as much Spanish as I felt was possible. No longer the language of the text itself, Spanish becomes a key element in its polyglossia.

This came to mind in reading McDougall’s introduction when she talks about Hong Kong’s linguistic multiplicity and the fact that is book is originally written in Mandarin with some Cantonese expressions. This mix occurs in other works of Hong Kong literature, but may also be why it’s not accepted as readily by mainland China. In my mind, this sort of situation—overlooked even within its own country because of the linguistic mix—is a valid reason for awarding this novel the Best Translated Book Award.

26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brendan Riley on Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas and published by Grove Press.

This is Yan Lianke’s third book to come out in English translation, the first two being Serve the People! and Dream of Ding Village. (Interestingly, this is his third translator, with Julia Lovell having done Serve the People! and Cindy Carter having translated Ding Village.)

In terms of Brendan Riley, he was born in Dunkirk, New York in the Year of the Fire Horse. He holds degrees in English literature from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. He has worked for many years as a teacher, translator, editor, and writer. An ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, he also holds certificates in translation studies from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His translations include works by Juan Velasco, Álvaro Enrigue, Juan Filloy, and Carlos Fuentes.

Here’s the opening of his very positive review:

A rich, beautifully written, consistently surprising satire, Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses boasts an elaborate, engrossing plot with disarming twists and compelling characters both challenged and challenging. It leads the reader on a strange pilgrimage—often melancholy but certainly rewarding—through a China by turns traditional, modern, and fantastical.

The novel centers on the history and destiny of Liven, a remote village in northern China populated by invalids. To be a citizen of Liven, one must be disabled in some way great or small. But so sweetly harmonious is the bucolic life there, some even maim themselves to be allowed to take up residency. Liven’s origins lie in a mythical past of heavenly days before the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the convulsions of the twentieth century, including the Communist Revolution and Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward. Despite being a village of cripples, Liven is not a crippled village: symbiotic hard work ensures its people a life of plenty. As the shadow of modern times falls on China, Liven finds itself at odds with the world at large, populated by able-bodied “wholers.” From the first page, its fortunes take an especially strange turn with the onset of some paradoxical weather: “Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven, it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow.”

High praise for translator Carlos Rojas’s discovery of the ideal English name for Lianke’s mythical Chinese village. In his concise, enlivening preface Professor Rojas explains that the Chinese verb shouhuo, which he translates as “to liven . . . is composed of two Chinese characters that literally mean ‘to receive life’, but in the novel’s regional dialect are used to refer to enjoyment, pleasure, or even sexual intercourse.” This pitch-perfect target-language key at the heart of Rojas’s translation—an impressive feat of lucid, flowing prose—provides an effective comic touchstone; the novel’s exegesis begins and ends with the village’s axiomatic name. It also raises the possibility for Liven, and its unforgettable story, to assume a permanent place in the popular literary imagination.

26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A rich, beautifully written, consistently surprising satire, Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses boasts an elaborate, engrossing plot with disarming twists and compelling characters both challenged and challenging. It leads the reader on a strange pilgrimage—often melancholy but certainly rewarding—through a China by turns traditional, modern, and fantastical.

The novel centers on the history and destiny of Liven, a remote village in northern China populated by invalids. To be a citizen of Liven, one must be disabled in some way great or small. But so sweetly harmonious is the bucolic life there, some even maim themselves to be allowed to take up residency. Liven’s origins lie in a mythical past of heavenly days before the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the convulsions of the twentieth century, including the Communist Revolution and Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward. Despite being a village of cripples, Liven is not a crippled village: symbiotic hard work ensures its people a life of plenty. As the shadow of modern times falls on China, Liven finds itself at odds with the world at large, populated by able-bodied “wholers.” From the first page, its fortunes take an especially strange turn with the onset of some paradoxical weather: “Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven, it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow.”

High praise for translator Carlos Rojas’s discovery of the ideal English name for Lianke’s mythical Chinese village. In his concise, enlivening preface Professor Rojas explains that the Chinese verb shouhuo, which he translates as “to liven . . . is composed of two Chinese characters that literally mean ‘to receive life’, but in the novel’s regional dialect are used to refer to enjoyment, pleasure, or even sexual intercourse.” This pitch-perfect target-language key at the heart of Rojas’s translation—an impressive feat of lucid, flowing prose—provides an effective comic touchstone; the novel’s exegesis begins and ends with the village’s axiomatic name. It also raises the possibility for Liven, and its unforgettable story, to assume a permanent place in the popular literary imagination.

Lenin’s Kisses divides its narrative into three essential areas of focus. The two main protagonists are Grandma Mao Zhi, matriarch of Liven, and County Chief Liu, a government functionary who presides like a minor deity over his district of Shuanghuai. Between them they represent the dangerous, unrelenting tension between traditional ways and modern bureaucracy. Caught within their powerful yin-yang vortex is the wonderful, absurd, and utterly hapless Liven Special Skills Performance Troupe.

A devoted revolutionary who sees her dreams turn to nightmares, Mao Zhi symbolizes the sufferings and endurance of twentieth century China. When communism arrives she discovers that her village is neither recognized by the government nor shown on any map; she petitions that it be allowed to join the world and, after grueling pilgrimages to various seats of government, Liven is welcomed into the new China.

But when Mao Zhi tries to govern Liven through common sense and traditional wisdom, especially when it comes to helping the village endure China’s cataclysmic famine which followed Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward, all of Liven is denounced for counterrevolutionary activity, simply because they sensibly stored up their harvest against impending starvation. Nevertheless, the villagers are accused of greed, and the rest of the country comes calling to appropriate all their grain, tools, and livestock. Ironies abound: to save her people, Mao Zhi, ardent daughter of the revolution, must accept the charges of her accusers in the new Maoist cadres.

As I write this I’m examining a grim black and white photograph from the Cultural Revolution: two suspected counter-revolutionaries are pinioned atop a farm truck packed with loyal Maoists; placards hanging round their necks declare their anti-revolutionary crimes; the truck is surrounded by a teeming crowd, all “struggling against” the offensive criminals. This picture is nearly identical to one of the more harrowing scenes of tribulation which Lianke describes, when Mao Zhi is forced to answer for the crimes of Liven. Summoned to the district capital, Mao Zhi prudently confesses to being a counter-revolutionary, and is spared, while the other “criminal” by her side has his brains blown out. Thus, despite the multiple positive implications of its name, Liven becomes a fallen Shangri-La, and Mao Zhi will spend the rest of her life trying to redeem it and restore its happy past.

Grandma Mao Zhi’s counterpart is County Chief Liu, who concocts an improbable scheme to purchase Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed corpse from a cash-strapped Moscow. His chuckleheaded assumption is that, once installed in a gleaming new mausoleum atop Spirit Mountain, the corpse will attract endless hordes of paying tourists, thus ensuring the district a livening mountain of money, more than it can ever spend.

This feckless communist-cum-capitalist party cog who, despite delusions of grandeur, is doomed to failure, provides the satirical alloy to the sombre tale of Grandma Mao and Liven. When Liu visits Liven during its annual livening festival, some of the disabled villagers honor him with a performance of their many unusual skills. Paraplegic Woman can embroider a butterfly on a poplar leaf with astonishing dexterity. Blind Tonghua can hear a feather land anywhere on the stage. One-Legged Monkey can outrun an able-bodied man and perform an amazing long jump. In their quaint freak show Chief Liu spies his golden goose: a special skills performance troupe to tour China and raise the millions needed to purchase Lenin’s corpse. Granda Mao Zhi bitterly agrees to his mad scheme with an equally quixotic proposal; in exchange for granting the troupe permission to tour China, she secures Chief Liu’s promise to allow Liven to once more withdraw from society in order to rediscover its heavenly days of livening.

The novel’s structure offers only odd numbered chapters which are meant, according to Professor Rojas, to signify Liven’s (and China’s) off-kilter progress through modernity. Most are followed by a variety of endnotes for “Further Reading”: some, with blunt-toothed sarcasm, constitute a simple, obvious gloss, while others go much further field, flowering out into complex, full-fledged chapters.

Liven’s saga is both moving and gut-wrenching as well as mordantly, brutally, bitterly funny; it spares neither its characters nor its readers the multitudinous disasters of human folly. The novel is a veritable Chinese Box of absurd tribulations, each one containing its own Russian matryoshka doll. But the figurine’s faces are painted in outrage, mirroring the reader’s disbelief at Liven’s seemingly endless misfortunes.

Sometimes the plot’s style reads like a modern fable of the kind found in Hesse’s Siddhartha or Flaubert’s Legend of St. Julian Hospitaler with its flat recounting of grief and endurance in the face of impossible suffering. During one particularly grueling episode, the special skills performance troupe finds itself held prisoner inside the splendid new Lenin Mausoleum, built with the profits from its hundreds of high-priced, sold-out shows. Their jailers are none other than the band of “wholer” roadies who’ve shepherded them around China for the past year. Jealous of the cripples’s vast earnings, they hold them ransom against themselves, extracting their every last yuan by selling them food and water at outrageous prices. And when the suffering cripples of Liven have, once again, given their all, the demands only become more outrageous.

Betrayed by every other social arrangement–feudalism, Marxism, communism, Maoism, bureaucracy, capitalism, show business, and the tenuous honor among thieves–Liven finally has nothing but itself, alone among the remote mountains of Balou with the blossoms floating on the spring breeze as in the famous 5th century poem “Peach Blossom Land” by Tao Yuan Ming. For a moment, the message seems to be that compassionate solidarity with our lowest common denominator might be the true path, but in the end Liven is no staging ground for revolution, simply a threshing floor, a harsh oasis, a lonely last resort. Lenin’s Kisses, however, offers an irresistible attraction for readers of powerful, uncompromising satire. So pucker up, buttercup.

3 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m pretty bummed about this one. And my secret hope of hopes is that Mo Yan’s Pow! didn’t make the list because everyone is so enamored with Sandalwood Death, which we officially decided to make eligible for the 2014 BTBA.

I reviewed this novel a couple months back, and will be using it in my “Translation & World Literature” class later this spring as part of our six-title “Best Translated Book” class rumble. And I personally think it could win.

Anyway, here’s a bit of my review:

Pow! consists of a story within a story: in the present, Xiaotong is relating to a monk his life story, while witnessing a host of very surreal events—a meat celebration gone awry and ending with bunches of dead ostriches, a man boning 41 women in a row, etc.—with the goal of confessing in order to become a monk. By contrast, the story he tells of growing up in Slaughterhouse Village, where his dad runs away with the town floozy, and the village leader teaches everyone to maximize profits by pumping their meat full of water and formaldehyde, is much more realistic . . . sort of.

I don’t want to spoil too much for readers, but the core plot of Pow! is a rather tragic and disturbing story involving Xiaotong’s parents and their relationship to village leader, Lao Lan. Told in a straightforward, realistic fashion, it would resemble a soap opera, filled with eating contests, battling egos, poverty, sex, and death. Oh, and meat.

The brilliance of this novel—and the reason it deserves comparisons to so many great authors—is the way in which this tragic story is filtered through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. (Granted, Xiaotong is a 20-something when he’s telling the monk his life story, but his mind has never really progressed, and his myth-making is more like a pre-teen than a fully-formed adult.) As a result, the story gets pulled and twisted out of shape, and what is “real” becomes a lot less certain—especially when Xiaotong keeps insisting on his story’s veracity:

“Wise Monk, where I come from people call children who boast and lie a lot ‘Powboys,’ but every word in what I’m telling you is the unvarnished truth.”

Uh-huh.

It’s not like an unreliable narrator is anything new in literature, and post-Nabokov, it’s almost second-nature as a reader to try and see through to what a narrator isn’t saying to really get what’s going on. But I really like the way in which these two narratives—one which centers around the construction of a “Meat God” statue (presumably made in honor of Xiaotong) and functions in a sort of timeless, surreal zone; one that centers around Xiaotong’s adventures and war with Lao Lan, and is filled with boasts and impossible feats (a 12-year-old eating 5lbs of meat, the firing of 41 mortar shells) transforming Xiaotong’s life into something much grander than it really is.

It’s not like Mo Yan needs more recognition after winning the Nobel Prize, but I would like him to get some recognition as a literary writer instead of as a Chinese writer simply because the first puts the emphasis on his wild narrative stylings and the latter makes his works and position as a writer all about politics. And that sucks.

15 January 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Tom and I will record our “official” 2013 preview podcast tomorrow, so you can look forward to that, but as a way of upping the number of books we can talk about on the blog, I’d like to start a weekly “preview” column. Something that may not always be that serious, yet will at least give some space to recently released or forthcoming titles. I’m sure that this will evolve over the next X number of weeks, so please cut me some slack on these first few . . .

Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. University of Oklahoma/Chinese Literature Today. $24.95

Jonathan Stalling of Chinese Literature Today — which really probably definitely shouldn’t be abbreviated as “CLT” . . and yes, I am 12 — spent a good 10-15 minutes of MLA explaining to me why this book was so awesome. I forget all the plot details, but I do remember the bit about an executioner taking someone apart over a series of pages . . . So, to go along with the almost nauseating amounts of meat mastication in Pow!, readers coming to Mo Yan post-Nobel Prize also have the option to read about the “gruesome ‘sandalwood punishment,’ whose purpose, as in crucifixions, is to keep the condemned individual alive in mind-numbing pain as long as possible.”

I have to say, the more I read about Mo Yan’s books, the more I dig him . . . And I’m really looking forward to reading this before teaching Pow! in my Translation & World Literature class this spring.

Generally, I’m not a huge fan of book trailers, but I have to admit, the one that CLT did for this is really pretty elegant and cool in an anime sort of way.

I have more to post about Chinese Literature Today, but I’ll save that for later. For anyone interested in checking this out, here’s a link to a sample of the novel.

The Eleven by Pierre Michon. Translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays. Archipelago Books. $18.

The only thing I know about Pierre Michon is that one of his earlier novels, Small Lives, which is also published by Archipelago, is loved by basically everyone.

For a while I was creating a playlist on Spotify of songs with numbers in them. Things like “Water” by Poster Children, or “Slow Show” by The National, or “Airplane Rider” by Air Miami (a personal favorite), or “Universal Speech” by The Go! Team, or whatever. I’m not sure why, but there’s something about people yelling out numbers (or referencing a particular age, as in The National song) that does it for me. It’s one of my “secret cues” that cause me to almost always love a song. (That and hand clapping. And sing-along choruses.)

I don’t think that same thing works for me with book titles. But Fifty Shades of Gray? Maybe this is some sort of subconscious tic . . . (Like A Thousand Morons! Or A Thousand Peaceful Cities.)

18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel. Open Letter Books. $15.95

A few months back, Zack called Nate and I to talk a bit about plans for his book and marketing and all that. In the course of the conversation, he told us about his elderly friend who was anxious to get a copy of his book.

“She called me the other day and said she’s seen it on the table at the bookstore and was really excited for me. I told her that it couldn’t possibly be my book. That my book hadn’t been printed. But she was convinced. ‘No, no, it was your book, Zack. And it’s pretty dirty!’ Only then I realized she was talking about Fifty Shades . . . “

All books containing a number and the color “gray” are the same! If only we could somehow use this to our advantage . . . Should’ve included that choker necktie on the cover.

That said, Zack’s book does have a spot of banging in it. It’s more of a nostalgic, romantic book than an erotic one, but there is something sexy about a good number of the scenes. Especially the conversations between the protagonist and his now-missing wife that take place while he’s photographing her . . .

So yes, if your sister/mother/grandmother/aunt is done with that other series, recommend 18% Gray to them. Besides, Zack is WAY hotter than E.L. James. (Although he might not be quite as loaded.)

27 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece I wrote (after a very long travel experience, so forgive me) about Mo Yan’s Pow!, which is coming out from Seagull in Howard Goldblatt’s translation.

Here’s the opening:

The first book by recent Nobel Laureate, Mo Yan, to come out in English translation, Pow! is guaranteed to get a lot of attention, especially considering the recent hubbub about his relationship to the Chinese Communist Party, to censorship, to the plight of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo. A lot of reviewers will scrutinize Pow! and its relationship to governmental power—on the one hand, doing what village leader Lao Lan wants really improves one’s status, on the other, it leads directly to tragedy—and will likely focus on the relationship between this novel, first published in China in 2012, and his earlier work.

Since I don’t feel qualified to comment on any of that—other than to say censorship is bad, but stances falling in gray areas are intellectually intriguing to me, and that I hope to read more of his works in the not-too-distant future—I’m going to try and focus on the book’s structure and its inherent trickiness, beginning with what made me really want to read this particular Mo Yan book—the jacket copy.

This might seem like a digression, but bear with me. First off, here’s a bit from the copy for The Garlic Ballads, one of Mo Yan’s most admired works:

“Banned in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, this epic novel by one of China’s leading writers portrays a people driven to smash the rigid confines of their ancient traditions. [. . .] The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government encourages them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as easy as they believed. [. . .] The Garlic Ballads is a powerful vision of life under the heel of an inflexible and uncaring government. It is also a delicate story of love and the struggle to maintain that love int he face of overwhelming obstacles.”

OK, fine. Sounds like it’ll be pretty social-realist, anti-government, rural, and commonplace. Now, check Pow!:

“A benign old monk listens to a prospective novice’s tale of depravity, violence, and carnivorous excess while a nice little family drama—in which nearly everyone dies—unfurls. But through this tale of sharp hatchets, bat water, and a rusty Second World War-mortar, we can’t help but laugh. Reminiscent of the dark masters of European absurdism like Günter Grass, Witold Gombrowicz, or Jakov Lind, Mo Yan’s Pow! is a comic masterpiece.”

Jakov Lind?! Comic?! That’s not what I would’ve guessed given the copy found on The Garlic Ballads (or any of his other previous works). Obviously, if I’m going to choose a work to start with, it’ll be the one name-checking Gombrowicz and an Open Letter author . . . That said, opening Pow!, I still expected to encounter a much more conventional novel than, say, Ferdydurke.

Click here to read the full thing.

27 December 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first book by recent Nobel Laureate, Mo Yan, to come out in English translation, Pow! is guaranteed to get a lot of attention, especially considering the recent hubbub about his relationship to the Chinese Communist Party, to censorship, to the plight of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo. A lot of reviewers will scrutinize Pow! and its relationship to governmental power—on the one hand, doing what village leader Lao Lan wants really improves one’s status, on the other, it leads directly to tragedy—and will likely focus on the relationship between this novel, first published in China in 2012, and his earlier work.

Since I don’t feel qualified to comment on any of that—other than to say censorship is bad, but stances falling in gray areas are intellectually intriguing to me, and that I hope to read more of his works in the not-too-distant future—I’m going to try and focus on the book’s structure and its inherent trickiness, beginning with what made me really want to read this particular Mo Yan book—the jacket copy.

This might seem like a digression, but bear with me. First off, here’s a bit from the copy for The Garlic Ballads, one of Mo Yan’s most admired works:

Banned in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, this epic novel by one of China’s leading writers portrays a people driven to smash the rigid confines of their ancient traditions. [. . .] The farmers of Paradise County have been leading a hardscrabble life unchanged for generations. The Communist government encourages them to plant garlic, but selling the crop is not as easy as they believed. [. . .] The Garlic Ballads is a powerful vision of life under the heel of an inflexible and uncaring government. It is also a delicate story of love and the struggle to maintain that love int he face of overwhelming obstacles.

OK, fine. Sounds like it’ll be pretty social-realist, anti-government, rural, and commonplace. Now, check Pow!:

A benign old monk listens to a prospective novice’s tale of depravity, violence, and carnivorous excess while a nice little family drama—in which nearly everyone dies—unfurls. But through this tale of sharp hatchets, bat water, and a rusty Second World War-mortar, we can’t help but laugh. Reminiscent of the dark masters of European absurdism like Günter Grass, Witold Gombrowicz, or Jakov Lind, Mo Yan’s Pow! is a comic masterpiece.

Jakov Lind?! Comic?! That’s not what I would’ve guessed given the copy found on The Garlic Ballads (or any of his other previous works). Obviously, if I’m going to choose a work to start with, it’ll be the one name-checking Gombrowicz and an Open Letter author . . . That said, opening Pow!, I still expected to encounter a much more conventional novel than, say, Ferdydurke.

On the one hand, that’s sort of true . . . Pow! consists of a story within a story: in the present, Xiaotong is relating to a monk his life story, while witnessing a host of very surreal events—a meat celebration gone awry and ending with bunches of dead ostriches, a man boning 41 women in a row, etc.—with the goal of confessing in order to become a monk. By contrast, the story he tells of growing up in Slaughterhouse Village, where his dad runs away with the town floozy, and the village leader teaches everyone to maximize profits by pumping their meat full of water and formaldehyde, is much more realistic . . . sort of.

I don’t want to spoil too much for readers, but the core plot of Pow! is a rather tragic and disturbing story involving Xiaotong’s parents and their relationship to village leader, Lao Lan. Told in a straightforward, realistic fashion, it would resemble a soap opera, filled with eating contests, battling egos, poverty, sex, and death. Oh, and meat.

The brilliance of this novel—and the reason it deserves comparisons to so many great authors—is the way in which this tragic story is filtered through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. (Granted, Xiaotong is a 20-something when he’s telling the monk his life story, but his mind has never really progressed, and his myth-making is more like a pre-teen than a fully-formed adult.) As a result, the story gets pulled and twisted out of shape, and what is “real” becomes a lot less certain—especially when Xiaotong keeps insisting on his story’s veracity:

Wise Monk, where I come from people call children who boast and lie a lot ‘Powboys,’ but every word in what I’m telling you is the unvarnished truth.

Uh-huh.

It’s not like an unreliable narrator is anything new in literature, and post-Nabokov, it’s almost second-nature as a reader to try and see through to what a narrator isn’t saying to really get what’s going on. But I really like the way in which these two narratives—one which centers around the construction of a “Meat God” statue (presumably made in honor of Xiaotong) and functions in a sort of timeless, surreal zone; one that centers around Xiaotong’s adventures and war with Lao Lan, and is filled with boasts and impossible feats (a 12-year-old eating 5lbs of meat, the firing of 41 mortar shells) transforming Xiaotong’s life into something much grander than it really is.

In terms of the translation, Howard Goldblatt is one of the best. He’s translated a ton of Chinese books, including all of Mo Yan’s earlier works. The book reads remarkably well in English—it’s by turns lyrical, funny, and vulgar. (The number of “Fuck your old woman!” type statements in here is remarkable and AWESOME.)

The thing that I’m really curious about, from a translation perspective, is the number of adages and sayings in this book. They pop up on most every page,

‘People aren’t mountains, they can change . . .’ Mother’s face grew red as she struggled to hold on to her temper.

‘Except it’s easier to change the course of a river than a person’s nature.’ Mother’s cousin was intent on making things hard for her.

Sun Changsheng was the one who snapped first. ‘That’s enough!’ he growled at his wife. ‘If your mouth itches, rub it against the wall. You fart three times for every time you kowtow. Your good deeds don’t make up for your bad behaviour.” [. . .]

I’m planning on using this book in my spring class, and having my class mark down as many of these as they can find, but trust me, there are hundreds. Which interests me, because I wonder how literal they are compared to the Chinese (the one about a horse not grazing backwards is one of my favorites), or how much Goldblatt changed them to convey the same proverb quality in English.

Aside from a hundred-page section that gets bogged down in meat desiring, meat eating, and meat everything, this is a really fun and enjoyable book to read—one that raises interesting narrative questions at the very end when, quite literally, everything explodes.

24 July 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Not sure how I missed the initial announcement of this, but Paper Republic and People’s Literature Magazine (wow, that website is something) have gotten together to put out Pathlight a downloadable magazine featuring “New Chinese Writing.”

The first issue is available for sale through Amazon.cn, but you can download either an epub or mobi file of issue number 2 for free.

Here’s the TOC from Issue 2:

Fiction

Wang Anyi: ‘Dark Alley’

Jia Pingwa: ‘The Hunter’

Medrol: ‘Contract with the Gods’

Mai Jia: ‘A Voice from the Beyond’

Ge Fei: ‘Mona Lisa’s Smile’

Zhou Daxin: ‘Golden Fields of Wheat’

Fang Fang: ‘Yan Wu’

Anni Baobei: ‘Qizhao: Lonely Island’

Lu Min: ‘Hidden Diseases’

Wei Wei: ‘George’s Book’

Guo Wenbin: ‘Blessings of Good Fortune’

A Yi: ‘Common People’

Poetry

Yu Jian: ‘Elephant’, ‘Hometown’, ‘Executing Saddam’, ‘Incident: Wind’, ‘The road I chose . . . still led to sunset and the trees’, ‘Terrorists’, ‘Unspeakable Fear and Longing’

Pan Wei: ‘Dingjiaqiao Village’, ‘Moonlight’

Tian He: ‘Going Home’, ‘Wet Nurse’, ‘Brothers Divide the Household’, ‘Tonight’s Moon’, ‘The Setting Sun’, ‘Earthenware’

Wang Xiaoni: ‘Moonlight is Extremely White’, ‘Thinking This, Then Thinking That’, ‘Those I Don’t Know I Don’t Want to Know’, ‘Early Morning’,‘Starting Anew as a Poet’

15 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Two of my friends have memoirs coming out this spring (the other being Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction), which is a sort of interesting phenomenon. I don’t typically read a lot of memoirs, but when it’s someone you know? . . . That’s extra intriguing. I don’t know either Gideon or Wen all that well, yet I know them well enough to know that I really like them and am curious to find out more about their lives, both in the events that shaped them and the way they write and share their take on these events.

So this week, I took a couple nights to get sucked into Wen Huang’s The Little Red Guard, which opens

At the age of ten, I slept next to a coffin that Father had made for Grandma’s seventy-third birthday. He forbade us from calling it a “coffin” and insisted that we refer to it as shou mu, which means something like “longevity wood.” To me, it seemed a strange name for the box in which we’d bury Grandma, but it served a practical purpose. It was less spooky to share my room with a “longevity wood” than with a big black coffin.

It’s through this lens of Wen’s Grandma’s impending death, and all the complications this causes his family, that he provides a picture of what it was like coming-of-age during the years leading up to the Tiananmen Square incident. The basic conflict—as described on the back of the book—is that Grandma insists on being buried next to her dead husband at a time when all burials are outlawed, thus putting Wen’s father (a devout member of the Party) into a really tricky space where he has negotiate his belief in Communism and Mao with his filial duties and love for his mother.

The whole book is really interesting, in part because it adds all new dimensions to my understanding of what makes Wen, Wen, but also because I don’t know all that much about Chinese life during this period. At least not a in a way that is personal, thoughtful, touching, and sincere. (All qualities Wen has as a person are also evident in his writing.)

I don’t want to write a formal review (right now), but I do want to say that this memoir is a wonderful portrait of a family caught in all the various changes that swept through China in the latter half of the twentieth century. All the shifting values, belief systems, etc.—it’s all very fascinating to read about, especially told in such a remarkably earnest fashion.

It’s worth noting that in addition to authoring this book, Wen has translated two books: The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu and Women from Shanghai by Xianhui Yang. Through all of these books—and his writings for Publishing Perspectives—Wen is doing a lot to bring Chinese perspectives to English readers, and for this alone he deserves to be applauded.

For more information on The Little Red Guard, check out this post on the New Yorker blog, or this profile in the Chicago Tribune, or the video below:

30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sharon Rhodes on Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, which is translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter, and available from Grove Press.

Sharon Rhodes is a Ph.D. candidate here at the University of Rochester who wrote this as part of an assignment so far back that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that she not only had her degree, but that she’s already tenured somewhere. But seriously, I’m a bit behind in posting reviews . . .

Here’s the opening:

Dream of Ding Village tells the story of a village destroyed by unregulated blood selling. Gloomily enough, the novel is narrated by a 12 year-old-boy who died without ever having sold his blood; instead, the narrator, Ding Quiang, was murdered by villagers with a grudge against his father, Ding Hui, the local blood head. Quiang goes back in time to the beginning of the blood boom in Wei County of Henan province, detailing how government officials first set up blood banks and then, how his father found a niche in the market. Ding Hui bought blood from the inhabitants of Ding Village as well as those of other nearby villages, and sold it for profit. At first this brought great prosperity, although those who sold blood frequently were weakened by the practice, but then, roughly ten years later, people started coming down with what Quiang and the villagers called “the fever.”

Nearly everyone who sold blood to Ding Hui or his subsidiary blood heads, about one person in each household of Ding Village, got “the fever”: AIDS was passed from person to person through re-used needles. This puts an end to the blood boom in Ding Village, though not before Ding Hui’s financial success enabled him to build a three story tile house in a village of one room mud huts. A few villagers who worked for Ding Hui were also able to build tile houses; but after the blood boom most of the villagers were no better off than before, and many had contracted HIV.

Despite the tragedy that resulted from his actions, Ding Hui refuses to apologize to the inhabitants of Ding Village. Instead, taking advantage of government subsidies for those infected with AIDS Ding Hui continues to turn a profit at the expense of those already injured by his actions. First he sells the government-provided food for profit, then coffins (a commodity in high demand), then he begins to profit from matchmaking—helping families find dead husbands and wives for their dead daughters and sons.

Click here to read the entire review.

30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Dream of Ding Village tells the story of a village destroyed by unregulated blood selling. Gloomily enough, the novel is narrated by a 12 year-old-boy who died without ever having sold his blood; instead, the narrator, Ding Quiang, was murdered by villagers with a grudge against his father, Ding Hui, the local blood head. Quiang goes back in time to the beginning of the blood boom in Wei County of Henan province, detailing how government officials first set up blood banks and then, how his father found a niche in the market. Ding Hui bought blood from the inhabitants of Ding Village as well as those of other nearby villages, and sold it for profit. At first this brought great prosperity, although those who sold blood frequently were weakened by the practice, but then, roughly ten years later, people started coming down with what Quiang and the villagers called “the fever.”

Nearly everyone who sold blood to Ding Hui or his subsidiary blood heads, about one person in each household of Ding Village, got “the fever”: AIDS was passed from person to person through re-used needles. This puts an end to the blood boom in Ding Village, though not before Ding Hui’s financial success enabled him to build a three story tile house in a village of one room mud huts. A few villagers who worked for Ding Hui were also able to build tile houses; but after the blood boom most of the villagers were no better off than before, and many had contracted HIV.

Despite the tragedy that resulted from his actions, Ding Hui refuses to apologize to the inhabitants of Ding Village. Instead, taking advantage of government subsidies for those infected with AIDS Ding Hui continues to turn a profit at the expense of those already injured by his actions. First he sells the government-provided food for profit, then coffins (a commodity in high demand), then he begins to profit from matchmaking—helping families find dead husbands and wives for their dead daughters and sons.

Unfortunately, like most stories of corruption and tragedy, Ding Hui cannot be blamed for all of the problems of Ding Village. As Quiang’s story unravels, it reveals the superficiality and selfishness of the villagers who—faced with death after death, whether their own or that of loved ones—come to value coffins and funeral preparations and even the wedding of two dead children over living. Because Ding Hui has sold the government subsidized coffins elsewhere, and straw mats are no longer fashionable containers with which to bury the dead, the villagers strip the local school of desks, doors and window frames and then, needing still more material for coffins, begin cutting down the village’s venerable trees. When they’ve finished, Ding Village has no school and no shade. Having no future themselves, those infected with AIDS cease to think of the future at all.

Despite the pettiness of many of those faced with an early death, two characters, both infected with AIDS, find solace in each other’s love. Of course, they, like all of the other infected villagers, eventually die painful deaths.

Although the author, Yan Lianke, does not end the tale with much if any hope, he does write the story well, weaving poetry throughout and using repetition in a way I’d not previously seen in a novel. The beauty of the poetry somewhat relieves, though in no way diminishes, the horror of the story.

In addition to being well-written and engaging, this book illustrates the real and continuing problem of disease spread via blood-selling in China. And, as the novel shows, the repercussions of HIV continue for decades after an initial outbreak because the virus takes so long to make itself known. Even were blood-selling eradicated today, families, especially poorer ones, would suffer for generations. Indeed, one man interviewed by the BBC in 2001 was in a very unfortunate predicament: his son sold blood to make ends meet and contracted AIDS, in response, the man spent all of his money on medicine leaving nothing with which to send his soon-to-be-fatherless grandchildren to school.

Further, according to a ChinaDaily article from September of last year, the Chinese government banned blood selling in 1998, but the practice continues in the guise of compensated “donation.” Rather than being paid for their blood, the poor and desperate receive a “nutrition fee” and “traffic fare.” The government could crack down harder on blood “donations,” but the real problem is oppressive poverty; for the fictional characters of Ding Village as well as many real people in China—as well as the United States—selling blood is a last ditch effort, something one does out of need. While clean blood for transfusions is an important aspect of modern medicine, taking advantage of the poor is morally questionable and, without strict regulations, dangerous for everyone. However, until the poor are less desperate, those that stand to profit will easily take advantage of them.

Secondly, this novel illustrates important aspects of human nature: Ding Hui becomes single-minded in his pursuit of money, not only is he largely to blame for the spread of AIDS in his county and, as he sold blood wherever it was wanted, in his country, he then profits from the government’s feeble efforts to help those infected with AIDS. Faced with their own deaths, the villagers stop caring for each other and the future of the uninfected, instead, they care only for coffins and “face.” Indeed, one of the only instances of solidarity exhibited by the villagers once the AIDS epidemic is in full force, occurs when a young man, infected but not yet fully sick, is able to marry an uninfected woman because the inhabitants of Ding Village assured her and her mother that the man in question was not sick.

Although literature often examines the short comings of humanity, it is only by constantly reevaluating ourselves and exploring the possible repercussions of our actions that we can avoid becoming monsters. Dream of Ding Village is an excellently executed reminder of the negative consequences of putting financial gain first as well as the long-lasting results of selfishness: when we put ourselves first—whether because we stand to profit or because we have no chance of ever profiting again—we risk robbing not only our neighbors, but our posterity.

9 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The February newsletter from the Chinese-literature centric Paper Republic has an interesting write-up of the “Future Masters” contest—a competition organized by People’s Literature magazine, Shanda Literature, and a media company from Chengdu, to identify 20 of the best young Chinese writers.

Here’s a link to the Paper Republic news item, and listed below you’ll find the list of the 20 authors along with links to any info about them available on Paper Republic.

  • Di An 笛安
  • Qiao Ye 乔叶
  • Lu Min 鲁敏
  • Ge Liang 葛亮
  • Zhu Wenying 朱文颖
  • Li Hao 李浩
  • Wang Shiyue 王十月
  • Tangjia Sanshao 唐家三少
  • Cai Jun 蔡骏
  • Yan Ge 颜歌
  • Ji Wenjun 计文君
  • Teng Xiaolan 滕肖澜
  • Lu Kui 吕魁
  • Zhang Chu 张楚
18 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Special thanks to Megan McDowell for sending me a whole new batch of translator photos so that I can continue this series.

For those who don’t know, this series grew out of an idea I had at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference that took place back in November. Megan McDowell (the official ALTA photographer) and I thought it would be fun to ask a bunch of translators a few questions and thus make them more “visible.”

A few short weeks after the conference, and just as this series was getting into high gear, ALTA sent out an e-newsletter that posed the question, “Do You Recognize Any of These Translators?” and included a link to a page on their site where a picture of me was identified as Lucas Klein. (It’s now fixed.) This was a source of great amusement to a few people, and thankfully Lucas and I were both able to appear at the same party at the same time to put to bed all those Clark Kent/Superman rumors. (No, I don’t know which is which either.)

I do feel like there is some sort of weird connection between the two of us though . . . I mean, that picture does sort of look like Lucas. And more to the point, my grandfather’s name was “Klien,” so maybe we’re inverted doppelgangers or something. The least we could do is have a shibboleth to identify other mislabeled translators that are part of our little clique . . .

Onto the questions:

Favorite Word in Any Language: Cipher

Tying this back into “shibboleth,” I think Mr. Klein has a bit of an obsession with secret societies and codes . . .

Best Translation You’ve Done to Date:
I’ll come is       empty talk      I’ll go and then no trace”

Lucas was the first (and I believe only) translator to take my question and reinterpret it in a much more precise, micro sort of way. I was really hoping someone would give us a single line instead of a full work—there’s something powerful about this sort of focus.

Book That Needs to Be Published in English Translation: Poems of Li Shangyin

Li Shangyin was a poet of the late Tang Dynasty, but the most interesting facts from his Wikipedia entry are:

  • In 1968, Roger Waters of the rock band Pink Floyd borrowed lines from his poetry to create the lyrics for the song “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” from the band’s second album A Saucerful of Secrets; and
  • Part of a poem by Li Shangyin is recited by a minor character in the Mortuary in the computer role-playing game Planescape: Torment.
15 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Zero and Other Fictions is a collection that displays a unique range. Huang Fan has been writing for over 30 years and it shows (though he may have been secluded for nearly a decade during this time, studying Buddhism and not writing much fiction). The “other fictions” included in this collection include a satirical tale of an unknowing political pawn, a humorous allegorical story of enterprise told through infidelity, and a bizarre metafictional piece that includes small illustrations among its many elements. This collection is concise; it is tight, dense, and powerful. Huang Fan is a different writer at every turn, and at each of these turns, a true craftsman.

The prose in “Lai Suo,” the unwitting pawn of a man, emphasizes the protagonist’s lack of agency—he is constantly subjected to experience:

He seemed to hear a number of other sounds. His two maple-leaf ears were completely exposed to the continuous noise on the street—buses, trucks, cabs, motorcycles, as well as the occasional siren of an ambulance as it rushed by. All of these sounds knocked on Lai Suo’s eardrums as if they wanted to penetrate even deeper, but were stopped in the middle by something—it was like an acoustic tile on which was inscribed: LAI SUO, TAIPEI, JUNE 1978, TRAVELER THROUGH TIME AND SPACE.

In the metafiction of “How To Measure a Ditch,” Huang turns directly to his audience:

Well, what eventually happened to those two young ladies? I’m sure a number of readers will be interested in learning if I became friends with one of them or we fell in love.

I won’t say yes and I won’t say no.

My answer is that the future developments with the two young ladies have nothing to do with this story. They returned to their real lives. Like you, as far as they were concerned, this matter was simply one of those occasional variables in life.

As you read this story, you also are “involved in” the story; it’s just that the way you enter the story is completely different from the way those two young ladies entered.

The final story in the collection is Zero, which as Balcom explains in his interview, was revolutionary for the political context in which it appeared. With this in mind, and having read his prose, which leaves no room for error, it seems that Huang is a writer whose words are wrought with an artist’s ideal in mind, that Huang’s literary work is motivated by a pure force that does not cater to even his own whims. Zero is one of Huang’s first attempts at science fiction, and while it does harken back to dystopian classics such as 1984 (with a small “Winston” cameo), it does not leave the reader a satisfying conclusion about where the truth really lies, which is infuriatingly simultaneously unsatisfying and satisfying.

These stories are no small introduction to Huang Fan.

15 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Zero and Other Fictions by Huang Fan and translated from the Chinese by John Balcom. Columbia University Press is bringing this out on October 4th. Here’s Lily Ye’s description:

Huang is a celebrated modern Taiwanese writer who has been writing for over 30 years. This is his first collection to appear in English, curated and translated by John Balcom who has graciously also contributed an interview to this feature. Much of Huang’s writing is political in nature, and in this collection we have stories representative of each of the various stages of his writing career. Here the stories range from metafiction to allegory to the science-fiction dystopian writing of Zero, which takes up the majority of the collection.

You can read a sample here, and an interview with John Balcom here.

Lily Ye: Huang’s writing, at least within this collection, is certainly very political. Where do you think that Huang Fan stands within the literary scene of Taiwan, and what is his importance?

John Balcom: I would say that every piece is political. Huang has always been way out in front when it comes to commenting on society, politics, and culture in Taiwan. His subtle grasp of the local situation has always provided fodder for his critical mind. He often dealt with subjects no one else wrote about, but which were of great interest – he struck a chord in the popular imagination and shook up the literary scene. His writing, when it appeared, was often quite revolutionary, often in terms of content, but also sometimes in terms of style – witness “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch”. However, thirty years later, we tend to forget what an impact his writing had – it’s sort of like reading Gide today.

LY: How would you characterize him in contrast to other modern Chinese writers like Cao Naiqian, who you’ve also translated? Do you know how is he perceived within Mainland China?

JB: It is really difficult to compare his work to that of say, Cao Naiqian. In a sense, they are writing out of two entirely different milieus and traditions. A better comparison might be between Huang’s use of the Sci-fi genre and that of Chang Hsi-kuo, the author of The City Trilogy. His work is known in mainland China, but by readers and specialists who know or study Taiwan literature.

LY: What do you think familiarity with his works will bring to Western audiences, and what would you like them to come away with?

JB: I think reading his work is essential for an understanding of post-War Sinophone literature. I would like readers to go away with a sense of his versatility as a writer.

Finally, here’s Lily’s review of Zero.

Zero and Other Fictions is a collection that displays a unique range. Huang Fan has been writing for over 30 years and it shows (though he may have been secluded for nearly a decade during this time, studying Buddhism and not writing much fiction). The “other fictions” included in this collection include a satirical tale of an unknowing political pawn, a humorous allegorical story of enterprise told through infidelity, and a bizarre metafictional piece that includes small illustrations among its many elements. This collection is concise; it is tight, dense, and powerful. Huang Fan is a different writer at every turn, and at each of these turns, a true craftsman.

All of this—the preview, the interview, the review—can be found by clicking here, where you can also read excerpts, etc., from the fourteen other titles we’ve featured so far.

12 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Liao Yiwu, author of The Corpse Walker and one of China’s “most exciting and most censored writers” is making his first U.S. appearance tomorrow night.

In and of itself, this is pretty cool—The Corpse Walker is a damn fine book, and he’s going to be appearing with Philip Gourevitch and Salman Rushdie—but the event has been made even more memorable since Liao Yiwu escaped from China to German this summer.

Here’s an email he sent out back in April:

Friends: I originally planned to leave for the United States on April 4 in order to make a publicity tour for my book God is Red which will be published in English translation by Harper Collins and for my book The Corpse Walker which was published by Random House. Unexpectedly, on March 28th, the police issued an order forbidding me to leave China. I had originally planned to travel to San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington and other cities and to give lectures, readings and musical performances at Harvard, Yale and other universities as well as participate in the New York Literary Festival where I was to make a speech and perform, and to have a dialogue with writers from around the world on the theme “Contemporary Writer and Bearing Witness to History”. Now all this has been canceled. My new book is also going to be published in Australia. My plan to travel from the United States to Australia has also been canceled. Ever since my return from Germany last year, I have been closely monitored. The police have “invited me to drink tea” many times. My writing has been repeatedly interrupted. I have once again been forbidden to travel abroad for national security reasons. Over the last ten or so years I have strived to get the right to travel abroad 16 times. I succeeded once and failed 15 times. Thank you all for your concern for me over the years. Liao Yiwu

So if you’re in the NY area, you should definitely check this out. It’s taking place tomorrow, September 13th at 8pm at the Tishman Auditorium at the New School (66 W. 12th St., between 5th and 6th Aves). Tickets are $20 or $15 for PEN Members and students. More information—including a link to buy tickets—is available here.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is Lily Ye’s review of Vertical Motion, this week’s Read This Next title. Vertical Motion is coming out next month from Open Letter, and is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping.

For an “experimental” Chinese writer, Can Xue has received a good deal of attention in the U.S. She’s had books published by New Directions, Northwestern, Yale University Press, and Henry Holt. Additionally, her stories appear in Conjunctions on a regular basis.

Here’s the opening of Lily’s enthusiastic review of her latest collection:

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

Click here to read the entire review. And click here to read three of the stories.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The word that continues to come to mind as I read Can Xue’s short stories in Vertical Motion is uncanny. Her stories summon the feeling of the familiar as unfamiliar, of the known as unknown. The uncanny, Freud’s unheimlisch, is often described as having to do with a return, a repetition of the known which reveals an unknown element. Oftentimes, uncanny objects are those which return from childhood, and indeed in Xue’s stories we find familiar elements from childhood stories, such as intelligent cats, children exploring a secret garden, and a couple with a mysterious plant, as in Rapunzel. But Xue does not tell bedtime stories—the reader is never allowed to get settle in and get comfortable.

Xue’s style has a counterintuitive effect: it creates unease by being simple and straightforward. In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writings, his technique of exhaustive description is applied with the intended end of eliminating all external significations for the objects in his work, to create a system of internal signification in which narrative is formed through the transformations and mutations of these objects. But Xue accomplishes this, very successfully, through a completely opposite tactic, by offering just enough information to allow the reader’s imagination to start working, but never enough to complete the picture we so desire. We become trapped in a world of her making because we are determined to understand it, because we feel as if we should understand it.

In her story “A Village in the Big City,” the protagonist is visiting an old neighbor, Uncle Lou. During his visit, he finds that Uncle Lou’s floor (the 24th) has suspended itself in midair while Uncle Lou’s cousin who is “so ugly that he can’t associate with others” waits outside the apartment:

The person was on the stairs, which is to say he was in midair. Judging by his voice, he must be hanging in midair. I couldn’t bear to shout again, because I was afraid he would fall. Maybe the one facing danger wasn’t he, but I. Was he saying that I was in danger? I didn’t dare shout again. This was Uncle Lou’s home. Eventually he would have to return. Perhaps he had simply gone downstairs to buy groceries. It was a nice day. The sun was out, so it was a little hot in the room. So what? I shouldn’t start making a fuss because of this. When I recalled that someone outside was hanging in midair, I started sweating even more profusely. My clothes stuck to my body; this was hard to endure.

As can be seen here, Xue’s protagonists, who are often the narrator as well, are oftentimes just as perplexed as her readers may be, only heightening the sensation of unease. Even the narrator is unsure what is happening around them, though this is the very world that they inhabit, and there is a feeling that there is something they should know about this world that everyone around them takes for granted (Uncle Lou is not at all disturbed by the floating building) but they are unable to come to grips with. Another example, from “The Brilliant Purple China Rose,” in a fairly conventional seeming set-up, a couple, Jin and Mei, live next door to Ayi, a busybody neighbor:

When Mei turned around to close the door, what she saw in the room startled her: a rat was sneaking back and forth under the tablecloth on the dining table. There had seldom been rats in their home. Was it really a rat? [. . .] Shaken, Meid stood in the room and said, “Rat.”

Jin’s gaze left his book and he glanced at her. Then he returned to the book and said:

“The rat is Ayi. You needn’t worry too much.”

Jin is completely unperturbed. No explanation is given for how or why Ayi has turned into a rat, and the reverse transformation back from being a rat is never addressed in the slightest. I wavered reading this story, wondering if I had missed something obvious: Was this metaphorical or literal? And most of all, how does Jin know, why doesn’t he care, and why does Mei simply accept this explanation?

This is Xue’s incredible success in obstructing external signification through the transformation of familiar elements into unfamiliar. We have seen humans turn into animals, but not like this—we cannot successfully connect her fiction to known narratives. Xue destabilizes the very idea of familiarity, upends what the reader believes is knowable, by stripping away the expository that we have come to expect. The reader becomes like one of the “little critters” in the titular story “Vertical Motion.” These creatures can neither see nor smell and can feel only through their skin. Twisting and turning, they dig through the earth, remaining always underground. Gravity lets them know which way is up, but they never know how close or far they are from the surface.

5 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As part of this week’s Read This Next activities, we just published an interview with Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping about their translation of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion.

Here’s an excerpt:

Read This Next: You’ve been working with Can Xue for a while now. How did you first discover her work?

Chen Zeping: We had read some of her short stories along with some by other avant-garde writers. After translating one story for Manoa and one for Conjunctions, we continued translating stories by Can Xue whenever either she or editors invited us to do so.

Karen Gernant: Another translator, Herbert Batt, was serving as guest editor for an issue of Manoa that was published in 2003. He asked us if we would like to translate some stories by the avant-garde writer Can Xue. We translated five, of which Manoa’s editor Frank Stewart selected one. Can Xue evidently liked our work, for when Conjunctions editors Brad Morrow and Martine Bellen solicited a story from her for an issue that also appeared in 2003, she turned to us to translate the story.

RTN: Can Xue’s writing is simultaneously straightforward—it’s not complicated to read from sentence to sentence—and complex—the straightforwardness masks a great deal of narrative depth. As translators, does this style pose any special challenges?

CZP: I understand that the translators’ job is to transfer the works into another language in such a way as to convey the original. We avoid adding any interpretation if we do not have to. In most cases, CX’s stories have their own surface logic so that sentences are also logically connected.

KG: As Chen Zeping suggests, we translate what we see on the page, allowing readers to interpret these words as they choose. We think that readers must enter into Can Xue’s stories in order to understand them. But we do not think it’s our job as translators to lead readers toward that understanding.

Click here to read the whole interview.

2 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Vertical Motion, a new collection of stories by Can Xue, which is translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping and coming out from Open Letter in mid-September.

Super-intern Lily Ye explains why we selected this book for RTN:

This week we’ve chosen Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, a collection of truly fantastic short stories. We chose this book for many reasons. To start off, we haven’t been featuring any Asian writers so far, and since we say we’re committed to promoting literature the world over, we’d like to start correcting this oversight. Read This Next followers can also look forward to an advanced preview of a collection of short stories by celebrated Taiwanese author Huang Fan coming this September.

Can Xue (actually a pseudonym meaning “dirty snow, leftover snow” for Deng Xiaohua) has received praise from Robert Coover and Susan Sontag, has been likened to Kafka multiple times, and has been hailed as an innovative writer to be admired not just within the bounds of Chinese literature, but in world literature. Growing up in the Cultural Revolution during which her parents were sent to the countryside, Xue only received a formal education up through elementary school. She learned English on her own and has written books on Dante, Borges and Shakespeare.

Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping in collaboration, Vertical Motion features stories that do not complicate their language, but draw complicated worlds nonetheless. Readers will be dropped into settings and times which seem almost familiar, almost recognizable. Plants that grow underground, blind beaked underground creatures, cotton candy that can be summoned from thin air—all of Xue’s stories challenge what you think you know, what you think you should know, and what you think you can know. Read the title story and two more in the advanced preview to start exploring.

Click here to read “Vertical Motion,” “Red Leaves,” and “Elena.” And check back later in the week for an interview with the translators and a full review of the collection.

17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on An Empty Room: Stories by Mu Xin, translated from the Chinese by Toming Jun Liu, and available from New Directions.

Will has become a regular contributor for Three Percent, and is likely to be reviewing even more for us now that he’s graduated with his degree in Japanese and certificate in literary translation.

Here’s the opening of his piece on An Empty Room:

Like countless other foreign authors, Mu Xin is only just now getting his first collection of fiction published in English with An Empty Room, though he has more than twenty books published in mainland China. What seems all the more tragic is that many of these works were written while Xin was living in the United States, as almost all his previous literary and artistic works had been destroyed in the social turmoil of post World War II and mid-Cultural Revolution China. Luckily, English readers now have An Empty Room, a stunning, beautiful collection of fiction that hopefully will lead to more of his work in the future.

In the translator’s afterword for An Empty Room, Toming Jun Liu states that the thirteen stories collected in this collection can be read individually or as a linked story cycle akin to a kind of bildungsroman. And it is quite tempting to do so. Most of the stories are written like long-ago memories being recalled, often melancholy stories of growing up: both the natural growing up of a child, and the unnatural maturation that hits a young adult confronted with tragedy. All the stories are written in the first person too, so though the titles change, the narrator seems constant, even in stories like “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” which follows Alice and takes place in a post-war Britain.

What is particularly interesting about this collection of “stories” is how personal they seem, and how un-story like they can be. “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” is less a short story than a curious little essay, like the kind of internal monologue one has when talking a long walk by themselves (which is actually what the narrator is doing in the piece—talking a stroll through Queens, New York). Translator Jun Liu attributes this as Xin’s affinity with the Chinese prose style sanwen (which is usually just translated as “prose”), a classical Chinese genre of writing that “freely crosses the boundaries of poetry, meditative essay, and fiction.” I personally did not respond as strongly to “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” than to some of the other pieces in this collection, but that, of course, is one of the many road bumps one has to deal with when faced with artistic standards and styles that differ from one’s norm. But what ties almost all the pieces together is their sense of pure storytelling—like the narrator is a close friend, telling you the reader his most cherished personal anecdotes and feelings.

Click here to read the entire review.

17 June 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Like countless other foreign authors, Mu Xin is only just now getting his first collection of fiction published in English with An Empty Room, though he has more than twenty books published in mainland China. What seems all the more tragic is that many of these works were written while Xin was living in the United States, as almost all his previous literary and artistic works had been destroyed in the social turmoil of post World War II and mid-Cultural Revolution China. Luckily, English readers now have An Empty Room, a stunning, beautiful collection of fiction that hopefully will lead to more of his work in the future.

In the translator’s afterword for An Empty Room, Toming Jun Liu states that the thirteen stories collected in this collection can be read individually or as a linked story cycle akin to a kind of bildungsroman. And it is quite tempting to do so. Most of the stories are written like long-ago memories being recalled, often melancholy stories of growing up: both the natural growing up of a child, and the unnatural maturation that hits a young adult confronted with tragedy. All the stories are written in the first person too, so though the titles change, the narrator seems constant, even in stories like “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” which follows Alice and takes place in a post-war Britain.

What is particularly interesting about this collection of “stories” is how personal they seem, and how un-story like they can be. “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” is less a short story than a curious little essay, like the kind of internal monologue one has when talking a long walk by themselves (which is actually what the narrator is doing in the piece—talking a stroll through Queens, New York). Translator Jun Liu attributes this as Xin’s affinity with the Chinese prose style sanwen (which is usually just translated as “prose”), a classical Chinese genre of writing that “freely crosses the boundaries of poetry, meditative essay, and fiction.” I personally did not respond as strongly to “Tomorrow I’ll Stroll No More” than to some of the other pieces in this collection, but that, of course, is one of the many road bumps one has to deal with when faced with artistic standards and styles that differ from one’s norm. But what ties almost all the pieces together is their sense of pure storytelling—like the narrator is a close friend, telling you the reader his most cherished personal anecdotes and feelings.

A few decades have passed since then. I still remember the surprise I felt when I first pushed open that screen door. The desolate winter scenery of the mountain, the abandoned church and temple as if the whole of humanity had disappeared, contrasted strikingly with the flowering cherry blossoms that blazed before me—people, life… bluish-white letterhead, golden yellow Kodak boxes—it was like the welcome of spring, or an unexpected encounter with an old friend.

Those fleas that had bitten Liang may have also bitten Mei. A poet once compared the blood of a man and a woman mixed with the living walls of a flea to a marriage temple. What a refined sentiment of tragedy! By coincidence my own blood was mixed in as well, though I was innocent. I never witnessed the marriage of Liang and Mei.

I record this story in memory of my youth. And still I cannot comprehend what it means—which only demonstrates that I haven’t made much progress these past few decades.

The best stories in this collection are among some of the most beautiful pieces of prose I’ve read in recent memory. The title story is a haunting tale of the narrator finding a temple in the mountains, and trying to unravel the circumstances that lead to a deserted room filled with abandoned love letters. In “The Boy Next Door,” the narrator debates taking a picture with one of his friend’s young neighbors, who is the spitting image of the narrator as a child, when all of his own old pictures have been lost in a “catastrophic fire that would last more than ten years.” And in “Fong Fong No. 4” the narrator describes a lifelong relationship with a sometimes friend, sometimes lover as she reinvents herself over the years.

Besides writing, Mu Xin has made a name for himself as an artist and painter, and in my opinion, it shows. It’s hard to say whether this was an aspect of the original or the translation, but translator Toming Jin Liu has rendered Xin’s prose in this collection as extremely literary. This is certainly not a bad thing per se, but at times it comes off as a little over the top and somewhat pretentious, which can be off-putting. It also seems to me that they were all translated at different times. Although the majority of the stories are honestly translated not just ably but beautifully, for some reason “Quiet Afternoon Tea” stands out as being incredibly awkward and stilted—particularly in the characters’ dialogue (which I find rather ironic, since this is one of the only stories where the characters ostensibly are speaking in English). I find it strange that this one story stands out so strongly amongst the others in the way it is translated, but again, the rest of the collection doesn’t really have any problems like the ones I see in this particular story.

It already seems unfair to devote a whole paragraph to my minor complaints about this collection, because An Empty Room is an excellent collection of fiction by any standards. I was stunned by the quality of the prose and the depths of its emotion, and I sincerely look forward to reading more of Mu Xin’s work in the future.

26 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Tim Nassau on Yu Jian’s Flash Cards, translated from the Chinese by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett, and published by Zephyr Press last year.

Most notably, Flash Cards is a finalist for this year’s BTBA for poetry. I’ll try to handicap the poetry titles tomorrow, but based on Tim’s review, I’m not so sure this book is going to pull it off . . .

Speaking of Tim, he was an intern here some summers ago and thanks to our special brand of Open Letter guidance, he’s going to be launching a student-centric literary translation journal out of Brown University. Our quixotic nature strikes again! (And as soon as the first issue drops, we’ll have more information.)

In the meantime, here’s the opening to Tim’s review:

A few weeks ago I was visiting my grandparents in the tiny town of Kewanee, Illinois. Their house, because it is the same house where my mother grew up with her brothers and sisters, is crammed with the detritus of several childhoods and adolescences. While looking through a closet, I found a sheet of paper hand painted with beautiful calligraphic Chinese characters. It surely belonged to my uncle, but curiosity, and the feeling that it might otherwise remain in that closet forever, compelled me to take the sheet back to Providence against what some might consider the standards of being a good guest. None of my friends who speak Chinese could read the characters, so I took the mystery to Xue Di, Brown’s resident dissident poet. He of course sent me to Wikipedia, where I learned that what I had was a famous line from 7th century poet Wang Bo. It translates to: “When one has a close friend, the far ends of heaven are next door.”

Such a sentiment is the exact opposite of what you will encounter in Flash Cards, a collection of poems by Yu Jian. Born in 1954, Yu Jian has been writing since the early 1970s. For those who know what such things mean, he is considered one of “The Third Generation Poets” that followed the “Misty Poetry” movement of the early 1980s. Part of the Zephyr Press’s Jintian series dedicated to making available contemporary Chinese works, this is Yu Jian’s first collection to appear in English.

Click here to read the full piece.

And stay tuned to find out how Flash Cards fares in the BTBA . . .

26 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few weeks ago I was visiting my grandparents in the tiny town of Kewanee, Illinois. Their house, because it is the same house where my mother grew up with her brothers and sisters, is crammed with the detritus of several childhoods and adolescences. While looking through a closet, I found a sheet of paper hand painted with beautiful calligraphic Chinese characters. It surely belonged to my uncle, but curiosity, and the feeling that it might otherwise remain in that closet forever, compelled me to take the sheet back to Providence against what some might consider the standards of being a good guest. None of my friends who speak Chinese could read the characters, so I took the mystery to Xue Di, Brown’s resident dissident poet. He of course sent me to Wikipedia, where I learned that what I had was a famous line from 7th century poet Wang Bo. It translates to: “When one has a close friend, the far ends of heaven are next door.”

Such a sentiment is the exact opposite of what you will encounter in Flash Cards, a collection of poems by Yu Jian. Born in 1954, Yu Jian has been writing since the early 1970s. For those who know what such things mean, he is considered one of “The Third Generation Poets” that followed the “Misty Poetry” movement of the early 1980s. Part of the Zephyr Press’s Jintian series dedicated to making available contemporary Chinese works, this is Yu Jian’s first collection to appear in English.

The world of the poet presented here is one of constant alienation, dissociation, and feeling out of place. But all this in a sea of people—everyone is forced together by necessity, but this does not create a feeling of connectedness. The far ends of heaven are not next door: everyone is crammed together and one does not have a close friend: one has 1.3 billion people. The poems are described as constituting “a primer of modern Chinese life,” and it is hard to escape the fact of the political and social reality from whence they emanate while reading these poems, especially when several seem to reference it directly:

Morning in the park
Thousands of retired women are exercising
They’ve given birth their children are grown
scattered across the wilderness of life
The Dishes have been washed
With leisure time they want to do something for themselves
In the winter sunlight
a thousand mothers are dancing
One of them gave birth to me
Mother I call out
They all turn their heads

This is surreal, and it is skillfully ambiguous whether it is meant to be funny or horrifying (as those seem to be the main things surrealism can do), but it is quite real as well. A commentary on a nation’s desire for children it cannot have, a single man’s obsession with his own mother, a meditation on the indistinguishability of the self in a communist regime . . . It’s as if Yu Jian grafted the stereotype of the Westerner who thinks all Chinese look alike onto himself.

Of course, the only possible outcome of this is clear: poems about being yourself and poems about how poems can let you do this. A general warning sign for me when reading a book of poetry is if the poet spends too long writing poems about writing poems. In this case, the stakes are higher so it is more forgivable: in America, the concept of dissident poetry is somewhat laughable (“You mean like America?”) because though you may be jailed for indecency, you will not disappear. I do not think Yu Jian is a dissident poet (because if he were I feel like it would have been mentioned somewhere prominent), but he recognizes that poetry as self-expression in China is not just about solipsism:

The poet is hosting a meeting
but she doesn’t know how to begin
Her poems are far away
planted at Black Leopard Farm
Time’s up everyone is looking at the clock
“Stand up, everyone” she says
“Let’s sing the national anthem”

The implication that nationalism is what fills in the gap left by poetry (or art in general) is powerful and important. This is what gives Yu Jian a feeling of belonging: not the forced comradery of communism, but that “A letter traveled a thousand miles / not to explain Ulysses / but to let me know / that somebody understood / my words.” Unfortunately, a large portion of this book passes by without making much of an impact. Many poems muse on daily life and present it enigmatically, but the exotically oblique meditativeness that seems to dominate our view of Chinese poetry rarely extends past the surface; each poem gives the strange impression of being both mysterious and making perfect sense, though the latter sensation often comes to dominate, and not in a good way; ambiguities are too tidily resolved. Perhaps this feeling is strictly my own, but I think it may come from a tension in how we view works from China: on the one hand we think of political oppression and work produced in exile, and on the other we imagine quatrains seeped in nature and Confucius. The reality of Chinese literature must be different and the oversimplification comes from my end, yet Yu Jian writes,

On the garden’s eyelashes
a butterfly is catching the twilight
The evening paper has arrived
Among reports of murder and the stock market
is a poem about the butterfly

What can we do with this? Can a poem about a butterfly also be about the economy (like this one)? The question is not even Chinese: can you be philosophical while writing about the actual world you live in? It has been done, but the tension between these two strains is not dealt with satisfactorily here: most “political” poems are abstract to the point of toothlessness while the “poetic” ones feel weighed down by inescapable ideological readings. For now, I’ll read the paper and then get to that poem about the butterfly.

29 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Starting this week, we’ll be highlighting the five finalists in the poetry category for the BTBA. Similar to what we did for the fiction longlist, these will be framed by the question: “Why should this book win?”

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Today’s post is by poetry committee member Idra Novey. Idra is the director of the Literary Translation at Columbia University program, a poet, and a translator. It’s worth noting here that her translation of Manoel de Barros’s “Birds for a Demolition” was eligible for this year’s BTBA, but was excluded from consideration based on the fact that Idra was a judge. That said, over on the fiction side, her translation of “On Elegance While Sleeping” is a finalist.

Flash Cards by YU Jian, translated by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett

Language: Chinese
Country: China
Publisher: Zephyr Press & the Chinese University Press
Pages: 151

Why This Book Should Win: Because Yu Jian knows we should avoid comparing ourselves to fish: they’re doomed, the lake drying up. Because Yu Jian has many lines that are this tragic and funny and involve washing machines and the Chinese army.

So many American poets are currently struggling with how to write about our environment. It’s an important questions, and I’ve been reading new pastorals: poems of lament, elegies for the flora and fauna that we’re rapidly losing and won’t get back. But here comes Yu Jian, writing about nature—and more—in a new way that addresses loss with humor and with a lack of familiar binaries.

In Flash Cards, his first collection to appear in English translation, he writes of frogs that died in 1998 along with their pond, but also of the mosquitoes that remain there, “sometimes conversing in English.” It’s hard to translate humor well, especially in the streamlined language of a poem, but American poet Ron Padgett and Chinese poet Wang Ping do an extraordinary job of getting the tone right every time. “Conversing” is just the verb for a wry, quirky line like this in English.

In another poem, when Yu Jian drives to the edge of “the virgin forest,” the translators go with a car that “zooms.” That zoom seems spot on when an imaginary doe leaps into Yu Jian’s heart and he says, “I no longer have a stream or meadow/ to keep it there.”

Not all of the poems in Flash Cards are concerned with the natural world, however, or at least not explicitly. One stunning poem begins with “the washing machine on Saturday” and ends with the declaration:

Happiness belongs only to a cashmere sweater
that demands a different spin cycle
its only wish to match
the mistress’ red skirt.

I would argue that happiness also belongs to the reader of Flash Cards and to its translators, as the humor and music in these English versions suggests that Wang Ping and Ron Padgett took great pleasure, and care, in translating these poems. If you haven’t yet had the experience of having a woman in heavy makeup and a wolf face turn to you at dusk in the zoo and say in perfect Mandarin, “Good evening, comrade,” you’re in for a delightful surprise with the poetry of Yu Jian.

23 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next nine days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



In Such Hard Times by Wei Ying-wu. Translated from the Chinese by Red Pine. (China, Copper Canyon)

Poetry judge Matthew Zapruder — poet, translator, academic, and co-editor of Wave Books — wrote the review below. I’m running another of his write-ups tomorrow, as we work our way through the poetry finalists.

The poems in In Such Hard Times: The Poetry of Wei Ying-wu feel strangely connected to our current historical situation. The struggle of this individual poet to find himself, personally and spiritually, through his poems, feels like a contemporary search. Like other T’ang Dynasty poets (Li Po and Tu Fu and many others) Wei Ying-wu writes to his friends, and wonders what he is going to do with his life, why he is living and working the way he is. He is caught between the needs of the world and his spiritual impulses. He wonders and despairs. Yet somehow, even more than Tu Fu and Li Po, whose poems are deservedly beloved in their various translations, Wei Ying-wu in particular feels like our T’ang poet: the one who most directly connects to the spirit of our time, today.

English translations of Chinese poets of the T’ang dynasty period (618-907 A.D.), by Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, David Hinton, David Young and many others have played a major role in the development of contemporary American poetry. The T’ang was perhaps the greatest era of poetry writing in human history. And the addition of another significant translation would be, in purely historical terms, a major event. The fact that these poems are translated with such clarity, unassuming erudition, good humor, precision and just plain old skill by Red Pine (aka Bill Porter) is unsurprising, given the translator’s previous output, including a translation of the canonical anthology of Chinese Poetry Poems of the Masters, as well as poems by Cold Mountain, several important Sutras, and an edition of the Tao Te Ching. And these new translations are nothing short of a poetic revelation.

5 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Thanks to Paper Republic for pointing out this early English-language review of Frog, Mo Yan’s latest novel.

The author of many novels, including Red Sorghum and The Republic of Wine, Mo Yan is one of the lucky Chinese writers who has been published in English translation, and it’s likely Frog will make it’s way over here as well. (According to the Global Times article, Mo Yan is one of China’s “hottest” writers, with “the most potential to one day take home the Nobel Prize in Literature,” which means that he’ll never actually win the Nobel Prize. Just ask Philip Roth.) It’ll be interesting to see how readers and reviewers respond to this novel, which centers around a rather touchy subject:

The novel, 10 years in the making and revised three times, presents a unique perspective on life on the grasslands over the past 60 years from the perspective of a local female doctor who specialized in child birth.

Before the family planning policy was adopted, Mo’s aunt, referred to in Frog simply as Gu Gu (“aunt” in Chinese), was once considered a godsend who helped deliver little miracles to local families. After the family planning policy was adopted, she transformed into the image of a devil who enforced abortive methods for women pregnant with a second child. [. . .]

“The family planning policy is a basic condition of China dealing with the most conservative element of traditional culture. It touches the sorest points and most delicate parts of the souls of thousands of millions of Chinese people,” [Mo] added.

China’s family planning policy has long been a topic that writers have dared not touch upon and few literary works have dealt with the subject.

Beyond the content, the form of the book sounds pretty interesting:

The novel is written in an epistolary style, comprising of five parts of four letters and a play, with the latter part focusing on Gu Gu’s confessions of the heart.

I love when novels include a play (see: Mulligan Stew, This Side of Paradise, Ulysses), and there really should be a term — “dramacore”? — to identify books that embed drama in their fiction . . .

21 December 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back on December 11th, Liu Xiabo was formally indicted by the Beijing Municipal Procuratorate for “inciting subversion of state power,” a charge that is often leveled against writers the Chinese government wishes to silence.

Here’s a bit more background info from PEN America:

Liu Xiaobo is a renowned literary critic, writer, and political activist based in Beijing. He served as President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center from 2003 to 2007 and currently holds a seat on its board. Liu Xiaobo was a professor at Beijing Normal University and has worked as a visiting scholar at several universities outside of China, including the University of Oslo, the University of Hawaii, and Columbia University in New York City.

Liu Xiaobo was formally arrested by the Beijing Public Security Bureau on June 23, 2009 and charged with “inciting subversion of state power” for co-authoring Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China that has been signed by hundreds of individuals from all walks of life throughout the country. His case was officially moved to the prosecutor’s office on December 8, 2009. He had been detained a year earlier, on December 8, 2008, and held for six months and two weeks under “residential surveillance” while police gathered evidence on his case. Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, was only been permitted to visit him twice, he did not have access to a lawyer and he was denied writing materials while detained at an undisclosed location in Beijing. Since his arrest, he has been held at the No. 1 Detention Center of Beijing City, where he has finally had access to his lawyers. If convicted of the subversion charge, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

To help bring more attention to Liu Xiaobo’s case, PEN has organized a click-and-send letter-writing campaign and petition signing. Just follow that link and look at the “Take Action” section to participate.

26 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Earlier in the month we posted a piece by Chinese translator—and amazingly nice guy—Wen Huang about Xianhui Yang’s collection of “stories” Woman from Shanghai. And no, those aren’t unnecessary quotes—these pieces are based on real-life events, with added fictional/literary aspects in order to skirt censorship issues. Which only makes the book more disturbing and calls to mind Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl.

I’m hoping to have a review of this up in the next couple weeks (although I keep promising reviews and not delivering, so we’ll see . . .), but in the meantime, it’s great to see the New York Times covering this in such a solid way:

Xianhui Yang’s “Woman From Shanghai: Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp,” a newly translated collection of firsthand accounts that the publisher calls “fact-based fiction,” is about what might be called the Gulag Archipelago of China. Reading it, one begins to appreciate why travelers to North Korea are so reluctant to reflect on human suffering: the reality of North Korea today is too painfully close to a situation endured by the Chinese well within living memory. As the circumstances of the publication of “Woman From Shanghai” help us understand, these are memories that the Chinese state still works hard to suppress.

Mr. Yang’s stories, which he painstakingly collected over a three-year period a decade ago, are those of people branded by the Chinese state as “rightists” in the late 1950s and sent to Jiabiangou, a notorious camp for “re-education through labor” in the northwestern desert wastelands of Gansu Province. In his introduction the translator, Wen Huang, explains that the camp, which was originally built to hold 40 or 50 criminals, came to hold roughly 3,000 political prisoners between 1957 and 1961. All but 500 of them would perish there, mostly of starvation.

When word of the soaring death toll reached the capital, Beijing began an investigation. In October 1961 the government ordered Jiabiangou closed and then mounted an exhaustive cover-up. After it was shuttered, a doctor who was assigned to the camp spent six months fabricating the medical records of every inmate. In letters to family members, the cause of death was attributed to all manner of illness except starvation, a word that was never mentioned. [. . .]

Readers of Mr. Yang’s book should not be put off by the frequent recurrence of common elements in these stories: the exposure to bitter cold; hunger so intense as to cause inmates to eat human flesh; the familiar sequence of symptoms, beginning with edema, that lead down the path to death; the toolbox of common survivor techniques, from toadyism to betrayal, from stealthy theft to making use of the vestiges of privilege, which survived even incarceration in this era of radical egalitarianism. It is through the accumulation and indeed repetition of such things that this utterly convincing portrait of a society driven far off the rails is drawn.

And Howard French even mentions Wen in his review, praising him for all he’s done to bring this book—along with The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu—to the attention of English readers.

Speaking of Wen, I believe he’s writing a few things for Publishing Perspectives about China. Should be really interesting.

23 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As mentioned last week, China is the Guest of Honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, and to prepare for this, four journalists from the FBF have headed over to Peking on a “journey of literary discovery.” (Which I believe means listening to a lot of speeches about China’s book industry and traveling around to various stores, publishers, etc.)

Ed Nawotka (of Publishing Perspectives and PW) is one of the journalists, and will be posting a series of stories all week about the literary scene in China.

Not too much online yet, but there is a post about how many Kindles he saw on the plane (and the lack of good travel books available for the Kindle) and one about the Joyful O2Sun Bookstore.

As the week progresses, I’m sure this will get more and more interesting. Definitely worth checking in on, and I’ll be sure to post about any really interesting pieces.

4 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Liao Yiwu is the author of “The Corpse Walkers: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up.” On June 4, 1989, Liao composed a poem, “Massacre,” that condemned the government’s brutal crackdown on the student pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. He distributed underground and for which he was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. The following, which profiles one of Liao’s inmates, is taken from his prison memoir, “Testimonial.”

Wei Yang is a native of Dujiangyan in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan. His head looks disproportionately large and he speaks with a thick accent as if he had a disproportionately large tongue. While in jail, he seldom talked and was anti-social. Beneath that loner’s appearance, he possessed the agility of a squirrel, smart and alert. He moved swiftly and mysteriously.

Yang came from a poor family. Before his arrest in 1989, he was in his teens, attending a local vocational school. Like most self-absorbed teenagers, he seldom paid any attention to politics or current affairs. However, the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 4 outraged him and turned him into an activist. Out of the blue, he fabricated an organization called “The China Democratic Alliance,” claiming that CDA was a longstanding pro-democracy organization overseas. Yang designed and printed a dozen CDA posters, urging people in Sichauan to stand up against the brutal regime, avenge the death of innocent students in Beijing and overthrow the central government. He boldly pasted the posters prominently at public venues. To add authenticity to his creation, he even made up a name at the bottom of the poster—“the Sichuan branch of the China Democratic Alliance.” The sudden appearance of those counterrevolutionary posters with explicit anti-government messages shocked authorities in Sichuan. Local officials escalated the case into a top national emergency and requested assistance from both the provincial and central governments. Top experts gathered in Sichuan to share information and conduct joint investigations. More than one hundred policemen were mobilized and ordered to solve the case quickly before “this counterrevolutionary organization” could create more damage.

Yang was quick on his feet. Upon hearing that police were on his trail, he picked up two big albums of stamps and ran. He remained on the lam for half a year, wandering around in ten different southern metropolises. “I started collecting stamps as a child,” he said to me after he got caught and landed in my cell. “Each time I arrived at a city, I would hang out at the stamp market for a couple of hours. The money I got from stamp transaction would last me for a few days.”

Yang’s case, which alarmed the central government and gained national notoriety, remained unresolved for months. When the real culprit was finally caught, the fatigued police were shocked, disappointed and depressed to see the “menacing” counter-revolutionary that they had pursued for half a year was merely an innocent looking teenager with a pair of big round eyes. What made them feel more insulted was the fact that Yang had no overseas connection, as he had claimed in the poster. He had no clue as to what a democratic alliance meant. When asked to cough up the names of the key members of the CDA in Sichuan, he admitted: “I, myself, hold the titles of chairman, deputy chairman, publicity manager and secretary.”

The public security bureau and the court staff realized that they had been duped. Out of anger, they had him beaten up and thrown into a detention center. Several days later, indictment papers came. Then, they put him on trial. “I took lots of mental notes and was prepared to engage in a debate with the judge about the student movement in Tianamen,” Yang recollected. “They didn’t take me to a courtroom. Instead, I was led into a small office. The paper with the verdict had already been prepared and lay on a desk. Once I walked in, the judge picked up the paper, handed it to me and told me to move my ass out of the way. When I refused to leave, he grabbed a document folder with both hands and began to hit me hard on the head. Then he yelled: ‘Get the hell out of here.’”

The judge charged him with counterrevolutionary demagoguery and sentenced him to three years in jail.

He was barely twenty years old. Initially, the authorities put him in charge of a warehouse for the prison factory. While nobody was looking, he slipped notes into the goat skin gloves that prisoner had produced for export. On the notes, he reminded people that the products were made in prison and urged customers to boycott the manufacturer. As a consequence, the merchandize, valued at about two million yuan (US$300,000), was returned from Hong Kong. The prison authorities launched an investigation and easily uncovered the hidden traitor. In retaliation, the prison guards hung him upside down from the ceiling for several days.

Subsequently, they assigned Yang to clean the factory workshops. He buddied up with a convicted murderer from Henan province, who was over six feet tall. Yang followed him everywhere. The two constantly got into quarrels. When that happened, Yang would tilt his head backward and stare at his companion with anger. He resembled more like a tiny mouse protesting against a big evil cat.

One time, all the political prisoners staged a hunger strike, but the guards enticed the common criminals to sabotage the efforts. The political prisoners found themselves surrounded by a group of hostile convicted criminals, which far outnumbered them. The big cat from Henan spotted Yang, the mouse, swooped on him with his big claws and then grabbed him by the collar of his shirt. Yang was swung high up in the air, his legs kicking like an astronaut inside a space shuttle. The big cat still wouldn’t let him down. People from both camps burst out laughing. For many years, the scene haunted me and kept occurring in my dreams. I would see him being held up in the air by an invisible hand, struggling to get down. When I woke up, I would always find my own legs kicking.

In the spring of 1993, Yang served out his sentence and was allowed to go home. He became a laborer, pedaling a tricycle to transport beer for small restaurants along the Yangtse River. Once he had earned enough money to take care of his basic needs, he became restless. He traversed the country twice. He was a true friend. While in Guizhou, he encountered a former inmate and brought him back to Sichuan. Yang offered his place to that friend for a long time. One day, my phone rang. I picked it up and nobody was there. As I was puzzling over the anonymous phone call, my door bell rang. It was Yang—he had just called me on his cell phone outside.

Yang looked weary and his face was covered with dirt. It turned out that he had just gotten off a long ride on a slow train from the coastal city of Shenzhen. He had come directly from the train station to pay tribute. “I’ve gotten gifts for you. These gifts have been smuggled in from Hong Kong. Two copies of Beijing Spring, a popular magazine published by dissident writers in the West and a book, _The Disasters of China’s Leftists._” Then, Yang flashed a 100 Hong Kong dollar bill with Queen Elizabeth’s head printed on it in front of my eyes: “Have you seen it before?”

My eyes sparkled at the sight of money. I examined and squeezed the one hundred dollar bill, feigning great interest. Then, I complimented him sarcastically: “You are very much in tune with the mood of this country, money, money, money.” His face blushed, looking like a Red Delicious apple.

Later, I was told that Yang had decided to reform himself, shutting himself away and reading banned books on promoting democracy in China. He also developed a passion for Chinese and foreign detective stories. Yang made tremendous progress both in his possession of knowledge and gadgets – he was well versed in Chinese politics and equipped himself with a beeper, a fax machine and cell phone.

Inspired by ideas from the many detective novels he had read, he launched an underground pro-democracy movement and learned how to contend with his enemies. After undertaking hundreds of scientific experiments, he acquired a new skill for writing secret notes with a special ink. The notes will remain invisible until you soak the paper in clear water for a few minutes (This special ink, mentioned in several revolutionary novels, was said to be invented by the subversive underground Chinese Communists who engaged in activities to sabotage the ruling Nationalist government in the 1940s).

Somehow, Yang managed to get connected with a dissident at a human rights organization in the US and communicated with him regularly. He enlisted my help in obtaining letters from imprisoned political dissidents and disseminated their information to the international community. We were both caught and locked behind bars for more than twenty days. The latest arrest made Yang more paranoid. “The police are omnipresent, like the bugs in your stomach. You feel their presence when you eat, and when you fart and shit.”

He further improved his spying techniques and always complained that other dissidents wouldn’t be able to appreciate his efforts. One time, while visiting me at home, he bypassed me to present a pot of flowers to my father, who wasso touched that he carefully tended the flowers, giving it water and fertilizer. Little did I know that a secret note was hidden at the bottom of the pot. It was a letter to warn me of a possible police search. Two months later, after Yang mentioned the letter, I dashed over to the pot and dug up the note. It was mainly decomposed with a couple of worms squirming over it.

If the “Chinese Democratic Alliance” was a mere figment of his imagination in 1989, he made it reality eight years later. When dissident Wang Youcai and his friends established the “China Democratic Party” in the summer of 1998, Yang and his friends responded and formed the Sichuan branch. Police soon got wind of their political endeavors. Two leading members, Liu Xianbin and She Wanbao were arrested and immediately sentenced to ten years behind bars. Yang also found himself surrounded by plainclothes police who were stationed outside his apartment. He felt like a turtle in a vat. Calmly, Yang stepped out of his apartment, carrying a bucket of ashes downstairs and pretended to dump garbage. As police closed in on him, he tossed the bucket in the air. The dust blinded his captors and Yang ran away.

Like a nervous deer chased by a predator, Yang went up north, attempted to cross over to Russia through Jiamusi city, but that failed miserably. He had no alternative but returned to Sichuan, staying at different places and playing hide and seek with police. Not long afterward, he forged an identity card and joined a tour group for Thailand. Immediately upon arriving in Bangkok, he claimed to be horny and insisted on visiting the red light district. He got into a taxi and recklessly directed the driver to the American Embassy in Thailand. Sweaty and stinky, he stepped into the American territory and cried like a baby. He said he had finally tasted freedom.

In the winter of 1998, I received a fax from Yang, saying that he had been kicked out of the American Embassy and found himself on the streets. Since Thailand is well-known for its Buddhist charity, I later heard tales of Yang being picked up by a group of monks. He earned a living as a temple cleaner. Out of sympathy and friendship, I contacted friends in the West, seeking assistance for Yang. Political asylum turned out to be more complicated than I had expected.

Four years later, the dissident friend at the US-based human rights organization informed me that Yang’s political asylum status had been confirmed and he would soon be transferred to a United Nations refugee camp. He would be given US$200 per month to cover his housing and food. “The money can barely feed his stomach,” says the friend. “But it’s better than nothing. I’m trying to locate a country that will accept him, but it’s very difficult. We have to jump all sorts of hurdles. He has to do a lot to prove himself.”

I felt so bad for Yang, but knowing his past ingenuity, I knew that he would somehow survive.

One day in July of 2004, a writer friend invited me out for tea and shared with me the news that Yang had arrived in Canada.

“He has a new phone now and tried to call you many times and said he couldn’t get through?” said my friend.

“Really? I’m sure he will call again,” I said.

(Special thanks to Wen Huang for sending us this translation of Liao Yiwu’s piece. Very appropriate for today, the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or June Fourth Incident.)

12 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

My friend Wen Huang — translator of Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker and Xianhui Yang’s Woman from Shanghai — contacted me this morning about the article below that Liao Yiwu wrote in remembrance of the one year anniversary of the devastating Beichuan earthquake.

As referenced in passing in the piece below, Liao Yiwu is a poet and novelist, who spent four years in jail after publishing “Massacre,” an epic poem condemning the killings in Tiananmen Square. His book, The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, came out from Pantheon last April to great acclaim.

On May 12, 2008, a major earthquake struck Beichuan in Sichuan province, about 80 kilometers from where I live. It’s hard to believe that a full year has passed.

I don’t know if the dead are resting in peace, but those who survived continue to be tormented by the memory of death. Recently, there have been a lot of stories circulating on the internet about an increase in suicide rates in the disaster area. A widely reported case involved a 33-year-old resident in Beichuan who had lost his wife and son in the earthquake. He used to be an outgoing optimist, but on New Year’s Eve he was found in a pool of blood with his wrist slit. Luckily, his relatives discovered early and got him to the hospital in Mianyang city where the doctor was able to rescue him.

A Chinese psychologist categorized this incident as an example of “impulsive suicide” triggered by Chinese holidays. The doctor said that every festival or anniversary has the potential to cause an insurmountable amount of stress for survivors. That reminds me of two lines from a well-known Chinese poem: “A stranger in a foreign land I cast, I miss my family on festival days.”

Each time a disaster hits China, we all become refugees and strangers in our own land. The famines of 1959 and 1962 left thirty million dead. The Cultural Revolution caused the deaths of between two and seven million people. The devastating earthquake in Tangshan claimed the lives of 240,000 . . . We survivors struggle on, living meaningless lives like pigs and dogs. In the Mao era, the Party used to call on people to “wipe clean the blood stains on your face, bury the bodies of your comrades and move on . . .” According to Western standards of mental health, almost every Chinese person is suffering from some mental illness—such as post-traumatic stress disorder. We are all the descendants or contemporaries of various man-made and natural catastrophes.

I was caught in the middle of the earthquake one month after my book Corpse Walker was released in the United States. I rushed out of my house and survived. Suddenly, I found myself the center of attention from friends and the media. I talked non-stop about my experience and expressed my frustration and inability to help. Then, some friends overseas reminded me of my duty as a writer: “You need to go to the epicenter and record real history. The misfortune of a country is the fortune of historians. This is an opportunity and mission from heaven.” They were right. I felt like transforming myself from a lazy dog into a mechanical one. I dragged my girlfriend along and sniffed around the debris for months, interviewing survivors and listening to their stories. I kept what I had seen and heard in a journal every day. As summer turned into winter, I finally had the opportunity to compile my journal into a book called The Big Earthquake. [. . . ]

Read More...

11 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If things go right, I think we’ll be running five reviews this week—which definitely makes up for the one we skipped last week.

Up first is Yu Hua’s Brothers, a very long novel, very ambitious novel about two boys growing up in China during the period of the Cultural Revolution and the economic boom that followed.

The novel opens with a frame story of Baldy Li, Liu Town’s most successful businessman, sitting on a gold-plated toilet seat, dreaming of spending “twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space.” He begins reminiscing about his now-deceased brother Song Gang, and about the time when, as a young boy, Baldy Li peeked under the partition in the public toilet and saw five women’s butts, including the butt of Lin Hong, the most desired woman in Liu Town.

From that point on, the novel advances in a linear fashion, describing how Baldy Li figures out how to sell his description of Lin Hong’s bottom to various townsmen for bowls of noodles, of how Baldy’s mother remarried and Song Gang comes into Baldy’s life, of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and of how Baldy Li goes on to become one of the richest people in China, capable of spending millions on a trip to space.

Along the way, there are endless reverses of fortune—Song Gang ends up marrying Lin Hong, Baldy Li’s grand schemes bankrupt him and lead him to collecting trash—and numerous side stories that give this novel a sort of Dickensian quality, allowing Yu Hua to really sketch out Chinese society both during and after Mao. The epic scope of the novel, along with Hua’s ability to shift from warm humor to sheer horror in the same sentence, are the real high points of this book. It’s easy to get sucked into Hua’s world, even when the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen next, which is true a good deal of the time.

Click here to read the full review.

11 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As detailed in the profile of Yu Hua in the New York Times Magazine, he’s considered to be one of China’s most important contemporary writers. In fact, two of his novels — To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant — were honored in China as two of the most influential books of the last decade. But neither of those titles (both of which are available in English translation) are anywhere near as ambitious and over-stuffed as Brothers, which is one reason why the Times Magazine piece stated that this “may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction.”

Although I don’t think things quite worked out that way, it’s easy to see why one might think that this novel would take off. It’s a conventional family saga that tells the life stories of Song Gang and Baldy Li, two step-brothers who live through the Cultural Revolution and into China’s economic boom years.

The novel opens with a frame story of Baldy Li, Liu Town’s most successful businessman, sitting on a gold-plated toilet seat, dreaming of spending “twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space.” He begins reminiscing about his now-deceased brother Song Gang, and about the time when, as a young boy, Baldy Li peeked under the partition in the public toilet and saw five women’s butts, including the butt of Lin Hong, the most desired woman in Liu Town.

From that point on, the novel advances in a linear fashion, describing how Baldy Li figures out how to sell his description of Lin Hong’s bottom to various townsmen for bowls of noodles, of how Baldy’s mother remarried and Song Gang comes into Baldy’s life, of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and of how Baldy Li goes on to become one of the richest people in China, capable of spending millions on a trip to space.

Along the way, there are endless reverses of fortune—Song Gang ends up marrying Lin Hong, Baldy Li’s grand schemes bankrupt him and lead him to collecting trash—and numerous side stories that give this novel a sort of Dickensian quality, allowing Yu Hua to really sketch out Chinese society both during and after Mao. The epic scope of the novel, along with Hua’s ability to shift from warm humor to sheer horror in the same sentence, are the real high points of this book. It’s easy to get sucked into Hua’s world, even when the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen next, which is true a good deal of the time.

The first half of the book (it was published in China in two volumes) is the strongest section, taking place primarily during the Cultural Revolution and providing some brilliantly disturbing scenes, that occasionally make this a heart-wrenching read. For example, Sun Wei is a slightly older boy who endlessly picks on the two brothers, and is the son of the man who leads the charge in killing Song Gang’s father (Baldy Li’s step-father). Sun Wei’s father then becomes the target of the townspeople (no one was safe during the Cultural Revolution) and is forced to wear a duncecap and make a public confession. After the townspeople decided that long hair is “bourgeois,” they decide to forcibly cut Sun Wei’s luxurious hair:

The razor blade in the red-armbander’s hand was slashing through Sun Wei’s hair and neck like a machete. Between the red-armbander’s downward trhusts and Sun Wei’s struggles, the razor blade slashed deeply into Sun Wei’s neck. Blood gushed all over the blade, but the red-armbander still slashed, ultimately slicking through the jugular vein.

Baldy Li witnessed the horrific scene as blood spurted in a two-yard-long arc like a fountain. The faces of the red-armbanders were sprayed with blood; shocked, they all leapt back like springs. Whe Sun Wei’s father rushed over and saw that his son’s neck was spurting blood, he pleaded with the group to spare his boy. As he knelt on the blood-drenched ground his cap fell off, but this time he didn’t retrieve it. Instead he cradled his son in his arms as Sun Wei’s head flopped over like a doll’s. He screamed his son’s name, but there was no response. With a look of terror he asked the crowd, “Is my son dead?”

No one answered. The red-armbanders responsible for Sun Wei’s death were all mopping the blood from their faces and looking about in a panic, struck dumb by what had just happened.

Yu Hua’s prose (or at least his prose as rendered in Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas’s translation) is so direct and clear that it’s very easy to envision all of the scenes from his novel. This is a very descriptive book, reading in a way that’s cinematic to a fault. That really diminishes the impact of the novel—it’s not a monumental work of literature, instead it’s simply a long, textured story.

Another problem with this book is how acceptable the actions of the characters are, especially Song Gang and Baldy Li, who are almost too perfect to be believed. Even when they’re doing something that the reader might disagree with, they’re acting in a reasonable, forgivable manner. The above excerpt points to this flaw: after the reader suffers through page upon page of abuse brought upon Song Gang’s father by Sun Wei’s dad, this sudden reversal (and the deaths of Sun Wei and his father) recasts his in a much more sympathetic light. And with the lack of internal descriptions, the characters move like ciphers across the page, allowing the author to manipulate the reader’s emotions and interests.

On one level, Brothers is a perfectly enjoyable book to spend a dozen hours reading. It’s engrossing and funny (like the bit with Baldy Li humping the telephone poles and wooden benches), with a well-constructed plot. Based on the all the pre-release buzz and claims of its literary greatness, I was expecting something more—something groundbreaking and unique. Instead, this is more or less a John Irving novel set in China. Which is fine—but not the “literary masterpiece” I was hoping for.

28 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Thanks—in a somewhat roundabout way—to Arts Council England funding, I had the chance to meet with Eric Abrahamsen and Nikki Harman from Paper Republic at the London Book Fair. Paper Republic is one of the best online sources for information about Chinese literature, especially thanks to resources such as their lists of books to (re)translated.

A relatively new feature, the site now offers three short lists: Five Books in Need of Retranslation,, Five Best Untranslated Books of the Past Five Years, and Five Best Untranslated Books of the Past Fifty Years.

They’re still in the process of adding information about each of these fifteen books and authors, and, in some cases, even making sample translations available. You can visit the links above to see the complete lists, but here are a couple titles that caught my eye:

  • Truth and Variations by Li Er: “Equal parts literary achievement and editorial tour de force, Hua Qiang (Truth and Variations) is comprised of faux-historical documents, invented archival materials and pseudo-interviews spanning the Communist Revolution, Cultural Revolution and present day.” (From the Best Five Books from the Past Fifty Years.)
  • Happy by Jia Pingwa: Not described on Paper Republic, but Nicky Harman’s very promising sample translation appeared in The Guardian some time back. (The Five Best Untranslated Books of the Past Five Years.)
26 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

This post by Bruce Humes highlighting all the bits cut out of the Chinese translation of a recent Newsweek profile of author Yu Hua (Brothers) is fascinating:

Yu, a former dentist with the charm of a salesman and an unassuming nature that have earned him comparisons to a peasant, has avoided the censorship of Chinese authorities in part by never writing about the Tiananmen Square massacre. In fact, he is surprised that the West remains so fascinated by the brutal suppression of student democracy demonstrators in 1989. “Chinese people aren’t really concerned with it anymore,” he says with a laugh. “The younger generation doesn’t know about it because no one has told them. The intellectuals don’t care because things are good now.”

Brothers begins in a much more desolate era. Early in the novel, the Cultural Revolution descends on their town, known as Liu. Gangs of Red Guards patrol the city searching for counterrevolutionaries, “wielding kitchen cleavers and axes, until the electrical poles, the wutong trees, the walls, and the streets were all splattered with blood,” writes Yu. At times, Song Gang and Baldy Li are so poor that all they to swallow is their own saliva. The death of their mother, Li Lan, in the late 1970s marks the end of the Mao years and China’s revolutionary frenzy. “The dead had departed; the living remained,” Yu writes.

In the second half of the novel, Baldy Li and Song Gang separate, each striving to get rich. Baldy Li concocts a number of dishonest, unethical moneymaking schemes to turn him into the richest man in town. In one, the National Virgin Beauty Competition, originally titled the Hymen Olympic Games, 3,000 women compete for the title. But few are actually virgins and many sleep with the judges. Baldy Li awards first and third place to two of the contestants he beds–underscoring China’s rampant corruption. Meanwhile, Song Gang lacks the ruthlessness that Baldy Li wields to suceed in cash-obsessed modern China.

11 March 09 | Chad W. Post |

Recently, I happened to be on the same flight as super-translator Michael Henry Heim (who literally speaks more than a dozen languages). We got to talking about books (naturally) and about what we were currently reading, and as it turns out, we had both brought along Can Xue titles for our trip. He was reading Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories (from New Directions) and I was reading Five Spice Street (just out from Yale University Press).

What Michael noticed when I gave him my copy of the book and press release (the reason I’m mentioning him at all in this review), is that the quote on the press release was an unedited version of the opening paragraph of the novel.

Since there are very few reviews that focus on the translation (other than to say it was “smooth” or “occasionally clunky”), I thought I’d take a moment to point out the great editing job Yale did on this opening paragraph and what a difference this can make.

So, from the unedited version on the press release:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, here on Five Spice Street opinions differ: there’s no way to decide who’s right. There must be at least twenty-eight points of view, because at the oldest, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the youngest, she’s twenty-two.

There are a few instances in this paragraph in which the reader is forced to reorder the sentence in order to understand it. Like with the placement of “opinions differ” in the first sentence, and “because at the oldest” (what’s the oldest? the points of view?) in the second. Fixing these sorts of knotty sentences is what one does when editing a translation—even if you don’t know the source language.

Here’s the first paragraph as it appears in the finished book:

When it comes to Madam X’s age, opinions differ here on Five Spice Street. One person’s guess is as good as another’s. There are at least twenty-eight points of view. At one extreme, she’s about fifty (for now, let’s fix it at fifty); at the other, she’s twenty-two.

For a book like this—essentially a surrealistic romp that obeys its own internal logic—it’s important that the writing is clear and direct. In short, the “plot” of Five Spice Street is that Madame X and Mr. Q have had an affair, and everyone on Five Spice Street has their own opinions about it. About how old Madame X, about whether Mr. Q is attractive, about whether Madame X is conducting strange rituals in her bedroom at night, about how the affair started, etc. It’s a novel of voices that constantly contradict one another and that—instead of advancing a linear plot—sort of over-stuff the book with details and speculations and unrelated anecdotes.

This is a very chaotic novel, which isn’t to say that it’s not interesting. Can Xue has a way with images, and the occasionally dashes of humor are great. Five Spice Street is a truly unique novel—in the style in which it’s written and in its overall aesthetic.

It’s also a novel that’s best approached in small doses. Taken as a series of individual scenes, or mini-tales, it’s a pretty compelling read. But with the constant shifting of events, of details, of every possible “fact” presented in the novel (everything seems possible, nothing seems true) creates a sense of constant flux that may or may not really add up to anything in the end.

Blue Light in the Sky & Other Stories contains an afterword in which Can Xue explains—kind of—what she’s up to in her writing. And although this was specifically written for Blue Light, I think it applies rather nicely to Five Spice Street as well:

The particular characterists of my stories have now been acknowledged. Nevertheless, when someone asks me directly, “What is really going on in your stories? How do you write them?,” I’m profoundly afraid of being misunderstood, so all I can say is, “I don’t know.” From any earthly perspective, in truth I do not know. When I write, I intentionally erase any knowledge from my mind.

I believe in the grandness of the original power. The only thing I can do is to devoutly, bring it into play in a manmade, blind atmosphere. Thus, I can break loose from the fetters of platitudes and conventionas, and allow the mighty logos to melt into the omnipresent suggestions that inspire and urge me to keep going ahead. I don’t know what I will write tomorrow, or even in the next few minutes. Nor do I know what is most related to the “inspiration” that has produced my works in an unending stream for more than two decades. But I know one thing with certainty: no matter what hardships I face, I must preserve the spiritual quality of my life. For if I were to lose it, I would lose my entire foundation. [. . .]

Some people say that my stories aren’t useful: they can’t change anything, nor do people understand them. As time goes by, I’ve become increasingly confident about this. First, the production of twenty years’ worth of stories has changed me to the core. I’ve spoken of this above. Next, from my reading experience, this kind of story, which indeed isn’t very “useful,” that not all people can read—for those few very sensitive readers, there is a decisive impact. Perhaps this wasn’t at all the writer’s original intent. I think what this kind of story must change is the soul instead of something superficial. There will always be some readers who will respond—those readers who are especially interested in the strengthening force of art and exploring the soul. With its unusual style, this kind of story will communicate with those readers, stimulating them and calling to them, spurring them on to join in the exploration of the soul.

Kudos to Yale University Press for launching the Margellos World Republic of Letters Series and for including in it such a wonderfully strange, unconventional novel. This bodes really well for the series as a whole.

Order from Harvard Book Store.

2 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

It’s no surprise that more and more Chinese literature is making its way into English (there were 11 original works of fiction and poetry that came out in the U.S. in 2008, and through the first half of 2009, I’ve already identified 9), but this spring has a number of titles that look really fantastic, and that we hope to review in full in the not too distant future.

I started reading Five Spice Street by Can Xue on my trip to New York, and am amazed at how bizarre it is. On the surface things seem somewhat normal . . . well, maybe. Any book with a half-dozen containing a half-dozen page argument (one that involves 28 people) about a character’s age is pretty cool. Can Xue’s been published by Northwestern and New Directions in the past, and as one of the first books in Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series it should get some pretty decent attention.

While in NY, I also picked up a copy of Yu Hua’s Brothers an enormous novel that was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize. Yu Hua was profiled in the Times Magazine, and I’m sure this is just the start of the review coverage. (The crap line “The novel, which will be published in an English translation later this month, may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction” will inevitably catch the eye of a lot of reviewers . . . That, and the size of this book—it’ll break your wrist!—and the fact that Random House is bringing it out.) Here’s the rest of the Times Magazine description:

Certainly, foreign readers will find in its sprawling, rambunctious narrative some of China’s most frenetic transformations and garish contradictions. “Brothers” strikes its characteristic tone with the very first scene, as Li Guang, a business tycoon, sits on his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of space travel even as he mourns the loss of all earthly relations. Li made his money from various entrepreneurial ventures, including hosting a beauty pageant for virgins and selling scrap metal and knockoff designer suits. A quick flashback to his small-town childhood shows him ogling the bottoms of women defecating in a public toilet. Similarly grotesque images proliferate over the next 600 pages as Yu describes, first, the extended trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Li and his stepbrother Song Gang witness Red Guards torturing Song Gang’s father to death, and then the moral wasteland of capitalist China, in which Song Gang is forced to surgically enlarge one of his breasts in order to sell breast-enlargement gels.

Following up on the post last week about Columbia University Press, this May they’re bringing out the fantastically titled There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Naiqian Cao. I’ll read any Asian titles Columbia brings out, but this sounds particularly interesting:

In this genre-defying book, the author’s affection for vivid personalities and unflinching realism comes through in a stark portrait of adultery, bestiality, incest, and vice in rural China. Set near the border of Inner Mongolia, among a cluster of cave dwellings in Shanxi province, these intense vignettes describe the base desires and dark longings of a life lived in virtual isolation.

Finally, coming out from Penguin in April is English by Wang Gang, which, according to the Penguin site, is about a twelve-year-old boy learning English in the stifling atmosphere of Xinjiang in China’s remote northwest during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Editor John Siciliano highly recommended this to me, and I’m planning on reviewing it once we receive a galley . . .

(Paper Republic. is by far the best place online to get information about Chinese literature both translated and untranslated. Definitely worth checking out.)

25 November 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The November Issue of the Frankfurt Book Fair Newsletter is now available online. There are a few interesting pieces in here, including one about China’s new program to fund translations:

Dr. Jing Bartz: The minister from the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) approved the first list of translation funding shortly before the Frankfurt Book Fair. The amounts range from 2,000 to 7,000 euros per title. Just to give a few examples: Berlin Verlag has bought a short novel by a young Chinese author, “Im Laufschritt durch Peking”, which it plans to make one of its key titles in 2009. This is about a migrant worker who comes to Beijing in search of wealth and love. S. Fischer Verlage are at the moment preparing Yu Hua’s lengthy family novel “Die Brüder”, a panoramic picture of Chinese society from the fifties through to the present day. At Suhrkamp, Mo Yan’s novel “Sandelholzfolter” is already being translated: a historical novel that takes readers back to the days of Germany’s colonial presence in China.

Ambitious literature that conveys life and what it feels like to live in China and does so interestingly and with understanding, goes down well with German-language publishing companies. As well as contemporary literature, some classical works will probably also receive funding.

The application process is simple, needing no more than completion of a one-page form and presentation of the licence agreement. Apart from a rejection, there’s nothing to lose. I would advise all German and English-language publishing companies to take advantage of this funding opportunity.

There’s also an interview with Uwe Tellkamp, author of Der Term (The Tower), a 1000-page novel that won the 2008 German Book Prize. Surprisingly, Tellkamp isn’t the most loquacious of interviewees:

Frankfurt Book Fair: In the industry, you were already the favourite once the shortlist was announced. Did you really not expect at all to win the prize?

Uwe Tellkamp: No.

The whirl of your novel – dense, eloquent and intense, and showing borrowings from your own life – sweeps the reader along with it. Were you also caught up in a whirlwind of past events as you wrote, or was there such a thing as “normal everyday life” for you?

Both.

In an interview at the Book Fair, you said that a book tells you when it’s finished and that as the author, you have to be able to listen to that. For “Der Turm”, it took almost 1,000 pages before saying “stop”. Did that surprise you?

No.

Still no reference to the sale of the English-language rights . . . Hopefully someone will pick this up.

10 September 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of I Love Dollars by Chinese author Zhu Wen, and translated by Julia Lovell. This first came out in hardcover from Columbia University Press in 2006, and more recently was published in paperback by Penguin. We’ve been meaning to review it for ages—anything tagged as “a Chinese Larry David” catches my eye. Emily Shannon—who was an Open Letter intern over the summer—wrote this piece.

10 September 08 | Chad W. Post |

Zhu Wen’s book of stories, I Love Dollars, established him as a pivotal figure in Chinese literature of the 1990s. As a part of the New Generation, these writers seek to produce a new literature in the post-Mao era, one that conveys nihilistic characters in a hedonistic society and reflects the capitalistic society of China—writing for money, knowing what kind of literature sells and what does not.

Zhu Wen started writing fiction while working in a thermal power plant, a job he eventually quit to become a freelance writer. Zhu Wen’s writing developed during a transitional phase of Chinese authors in the post-Mao era: from the 1980s intellectually elitist to the 1990s commercialism. These writers embraced the Chinese ideal: wang qian kan (“look towards the future,” where “future” can be replaced by “money”).

In the title story “I Love Dollars,” the narrator’s father comes to visit him, just to check up on him and his brother, for whom they spend much of the story in search. While the narrator’s father is visiting, his son takes it upon himself to give his father a visit he won’t forget, which involves getting his father laid. One might find it rather shocking for a son to be concerned with his father’s sex life, but this narrator knows no boundaries. While out with his father, he sets about on the task of finding a woman to please him. His plans do not always work out in the end, whether it is due to the lack of money or his father’s own refusal.

The narrator of “I Love Dollars” represents the writers who embraced the money-centric ideal described above. The narrator of this title story is also a writer, paid to write his stories, and as long as he continues to get paid, he’ll continue to write the kind of fiction that sells. “Keep the dollars flying at him, and inspiration will never dry up,” he says. His father, on the other hand, does not agree with the kind of material he uses in his writing. “A writer ought to offer people something positive, something to look up to, ideals, aspirations, democracy, freedom.” The narrator claims, “It’s all there in sex.” This spat between father and son is similar to the political orthodoxy that was forced upon writers in the early 1990s. The establishment apostles of political correctness called for “cultural works that reflect socialism, give expression to communist ideals and the spirit of the social age . . . and that can fill people with enthusiasm and create unity among the masses.” The narrator’s father wants his son to write something inspiring; not mind candy. Perhaps when the narrator says democracy and freedom are there in sex suggests that this society is obsessed with sex. A novel from another Chinese writer might support this idea.

The Ruined Capital by Jia Pingwa (1993) is a sexually explicit novel about a male writer’s “spermatic journey through the spiritual corruption of contemporary China.” It was a best-seller, showing that sex and sensation made high sales. So perhaps China’s capitalist nation—with its slogan of always working to make a profit—perhaps the idea of writing salable fiction is a part of the freedom allotted to a nation that is about making a profit. The narrator of “I Love Dollars” might then have a point when he says democracy and freedom and ideals are in the sex he writes about and are what help him gain a buck.

The narrator may have a point, and it may be easy to write him off as unappealing—he is a self-involved, sex-obsessed man. “Whenever I met a woman I’d set about getting her into bed immediately.” He claims his libido is a “sickness,” (not to worry, “the symptoms are never anymore intrusive than those of a common cold”). As unlikable as he may be, he is completely harmless, and Zhu Wen’s sardonic tone adds an amusing note to the stories.

In “A Boat Crossing,” the narrator is waiting at a dock for his boat to arrive and take him to another island. While there, he is in the presence of two men whom he cannot get to leave: Qi and Chen. When he finally gets on the boat, he finds himself in another uncomfortable situation where his sketchy cabin-mates leave him feeling mistrustful and paranoid. Throughout the rest of the story, there is one uncomfortable situation after another with curious encounters from characters that the narrator finds to be most obnoxious, and from whom he cannot escape. The ill fortune of Zhu Wen’s narrator in “A Boat Crossing” is given a bit of Kafka-esque paranoia. While there is an irritated tone to the narrator’s voice, the reader feels a bit of sympathy for him, while still chuckling to himself.

With a humorous and entertaining style, the narrator of “Wheels” tells about an incident that happened to him six years ago when he was riding his bike to work. A mob of men claim he knocked into their old man, paralyzing his left arm, but they barely fool him as the old man often forgets which arm is hurt, let alone that he is in pain. The old man and his “bloodsucking relatives” insist on a hospital checkup. “Not just a regular checkup, a full checkup, in which it was discovered the old man had a tumor in his stomach the size of a broad bean.” The narrator does not get rid of this mob as easily as he would have hoped, and even after the checkup, there is a ransom of 3,000 yuan “and the whole thing’s out of his hands.” In the end, the narrator is on his last nerve and he releases his pent up aggression from this mob out on a restaurant owned by one of them.

Zhu Wen’s narrators have a conversationalist tone that absorbs the reader into the world of the characters. While their actions and beliefs (particularly those in “I Love Dollars”) may be unlikable, the reader is still sucked in to the funny and peculiar world of the characters. They are each faced with some mishap that leaves them searching for a way out of it throughout the whole story. It is one thing after another that leaves them feeling irritable and hopeless, and the reader begins to wonder why and how these characters can have such bad luck. Zhu Wen’s witty and comical voice gives it a light mood, reassuring his audience that the stories are still enjoyable.

23 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over at The Guardian the most recent entry to their “Top 10 Book Lists” (which is exactly what it sounds like—top 10 lists selected by famous authors, critics, musicians, etc.) is Catherine Sampson’s list of top 10 books on Beijing. As she mentions, many of these books are “rich in satire, and in metaphors for political oppression. Most of them are written by Chinese writers who have chosen to live abroad in order to write freely about their country.”

There are a number of recent titles on the list that have gotten a lot of play recently, including Beijing Coma, Serve the People! and I Love Dollars, but the whole list looks pretty interesting, and the brief description she provides for each book is really useful.

Here’s the complete list:

1. Beijing Coma by Ma Jian

2. Please Don’t Call Me Human by Wang Shuo

3. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

4. The Uninvited by Yan Geling

5. The Crazed by Ha Jin

6. The Last Empress by Anchee Min

7. Serve the People! by Yan Lianke

8. I Love Dollars by Zhu Wen

9. The Dragon’s Tail by Adam Williams

10. Beijing Doll by Chun Sue

10 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In my opinion at least, was the “Tribute to Robert Walser,” the audiofile of which is now available online

A number of audiofiles from this year’s festival—including the Town Hall Readings, the Mia Farrow and Bernard-Henri Levy discussion on Darfur, and the Celebration of New Voices from China now available at the PEN website.

9 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re planning to post a review of Zhu Wen’s short story collection I Love Dollars (first published by Columbia University Press and now available in paperback from Penguin) in the very near future, but in the meantime, Paper Republic has an excerpt from his first novel. I’ll let translator Cindy Carter set the scene:

In the following excerpt, from the first chapter of What is Love and What is Garbage, we meet protagonist Xiao Ding on what well may be the worst day of his life: the weather outside is sweltering, he is drinking alone in a darkened bar at noon, the knife scar on his belly is starting to itch, and he desperately needs to take a shit.

Pretty funny excerpt . . . hopefully this novel will be coming out in English in the near future.

12 March 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

I’m not sure, but I think non-PEN members can sign this as well:

Dear fellow PEN Members,

I am writing to ask each and every one of you to stand up and be counted in support of our campaign to free 38 writers and journalists from prison in China.

As part of our We Are Ready for Freedom of Expression campaign, PEN American Center will be delivering a petition to the Chinese Consulate in New York on April 30, 2008—100 days before the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies—requesting the release of our jailed colleagues and seeking an end to internet censorship and other restrictions on freedom of expression in China. We want to make sure the name of every single member of PEN American Center is included among the thousands of signatures we are gathering for this petition.

If you have not already done so, please take a moment right now to sign this petition: www.pen.org/chinapetition

Your efforts will make a difference. Since the launch of this campaign on December 10, 2007, four writers and journalists have been released from Chinese prisons.

Once you have signed, or if you have already have, please spread the word and urge 10 friends or family members to sign on as well. Simply direct them to: www.pen.org/chinapetition

If you would like to do more, also sign our parallel petition to United States Congress to prohibit U.S. internet companies from helping China censor the internet and jail cyber-dissidents. Visit our campaign page at: www.pen.org/china

With your help and the help of all who support literature and freedom to write, we will free many more of our jailed colleagues before the Olympic Games begin.

Thank you for joining in this effort.

Sincerely,
bq. Francine Prose

25 January 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After all the ACE info of the past few weeks, it was interesting to find out that it is responsible for this fascinating series on the “State of Internet Literature in China” available at Paper Republic.

If you’re not familiar with Paper Republic, it’s the best website out there covering Chinese literature, featuring reviews, samples, and news (such as the aforementioned internet literature project).

In terms of the project on Chinese internet literature, I feel like I should read more of these posts before making any comments or generalizations. That said, what jumps out at me is how different/vital/necessary internet publishing is in China. This interview with Zhao Song—one of the main people in charge of the Helian literary website—makes that clear:

Heilan first came into being in 1996, as a traditional paper literary magazine. It was started by Chen Wei (the other site administrator) in Nanjing, and only put out one issue before being closed down. “You know that period of time,” says Zhao, “the authorities were very anxious then. It was an unofficial publication, and even though there was no sensitive content, the fact that it was unlicensed was enough to get it shut down.”

Helian now consists of a few main components—a monthly magazine, digital publications, and a literary prize—and is looking to expand its traditional publishing arm over the next few years.

There are two other bits of this that I found really interesting—the first about the state of Chinese literature:

“The Chinese literary scene is suffering,” says Zhao. “The political upheavals of the past decades have broken our link with the past. We’re like orphans, in some regard. In the west there’s a very strong line of continuity in the development of literature, but in China we’ve lost our footing.” He characterizes the two decades of 1980-2000 as a period of recovery and restoration. “But now that we’re ready to move forward, where do we go? It’s time to reconnect to our past and our traditions, but reconnect how?” The May Fourth literary movement (begun in 1919) represented a renaissance, but it was ended before it really came to fruition. The 1980s saw a frenzy for foreign literature, but in Zhao’s opinion that was mostly just an expression of excitement at being allowed to read again. “People didn’t understand what it was they were reading – the context or background.”

And this section on the challenges of finding good writers for the website:

“It’s just really hard to find good writers. We go out actively looking for writers, and trying to lure them in to the site. We do most of our looking online, at other literary websites – we spent some time looking in traditional paper literary magazines, but were almost universally disappointed in the quality we found there. They almost all belong to the Writers Association, and that influence is visible in all of them.”

29 October 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Guardian World Tour is off to China this month, which should be interesting. I assume that there are a lot of great untranslated Chinese books, but over the years I’ve found it more difficult to get info about Chinese lit than any other country. Thankfully, China is scheduled to be the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, so things might get easier.

....
The Antiquarian
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau
Reviewed by P.T. Smith

Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking.. . .

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Elsewhere
Elsewhere by Eliot Weingerber (ed.)
Reviewed by Grant Barber

What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .

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The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang
Reviewed by Chris Iacono

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .

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Sankya
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin
Reviewed by Kseniya Melnik

When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .

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Stalin is Dead
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .

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Paradises
Paradises by Iosi Havilio
Reviewed by Andrea Reece

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .

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Two Crocodiles
Two Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky; Felisberto Hernández
Reviewed by Sara Shuman

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The. . .

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