22 May 08 | Chad W. Post

This is the fifth entry in our series covering all twenty-five Reading the World 2008 titles. (We’re 20% of the way there!) Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website.

The Corpse Walker is one of the few titles in Reading the World history that’s nonfiction. Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich was part of the program a few years back (the same year it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction). Similar to Voices, Corpse Walker is a collection of oral histories. In this case, Liao Yiwu interviewed twenty-seven ordinary Chinese citizens from the “bottom of Chinese society: people for whom the ‘new’ China—the China of economic growth and gloablization—is no more beneficial than the old.”

With a good writer as interviewer, these sorts of books can be incredibly interesting and enjoyable. And in this case, thelist of people interviewed sounds fascinatingl:

Here are a professional mourner, a trafficker in humans, a leper, an abbot, a retired government official, a former landowner, a mortician, a fen shui master, a former Red Guard, a political prisoner, a village teacher, a blind street musician, a Falun Gong practitioner, and many others [. . .]

Liao Yiwu himself is a pretty interesting guy. According to the flap copy, he spent four years in prison for writing an epic poem condemning the killings on Tiananmen Square.

This book has been getting some good media coverage the past few days, including an interview with the author on NPR and a review in the San Francisco Chronicle that ends with this bit of praise:

Liao’s interviewees, most of them having no place in the official history nor voices that can reach a wide audience, prove to be among the best storytellers from the country. Reading The Corpse Walker is like walking with Liao: Even though our feet are not blistered and our bodies are not starved, in the end we are shaken and moved.

And the translator of the book—Wen Huang—is interviewed by Bill Marx on the new The World website. (More on the new website in the coming months . . . )

The World: Are works of non-fiction regularly censored in China?

Huang: “The Corpse Walker” was published and banned in 2002. But today a growing number of non-fiction works are published without interference from the police, even though some of these books criticize corruption in the government. In fact, books about the lives of real life people are enormously popular today — true stories sell well in China. But the government’s heavy hand, via self-censorship among publishers, still influences what is printed. If an author tackles a sensitive topic and publishers feel that the government would disapprove, they market it as fiction. So you have a paradox: on the one hand, more non-fiction is available, on the other, censorship continues because publishers are reluctant to print anything that might be seen by the authorities as threatening China’s economic stability, its carefully maintained image of wide spread economic prosperity.

There’s also an interesting bit in the interview on the difficulties of translating this book:

Still, some parts of Liao’s book were not translatable. The reason we picked 27 stories out of the 60 in the Chinese version was because of cultural reasons and the challenges posed by the speaker’s dialect, which in some cases was impossible to translate. There was one interviewee who talked about prisoners, drawing on a particular language that inmates use when torturing each other. It was a very interesting story but I gave up on it because I couldn’t capture its flavor in English.

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