New Chinese fiction
A scoreless draw
BROKEN TILE. By Su Tong. Jiangsu Wenyi Publishing House; 246 pages; 10 yuan.A COMEDY YEAR. By Hong Feng. Jiangsu Wenyi Publishing House; 307 pages; 12.80 yuan.THE KEY. By Wang Qinghui. Zuozhe Publishing House; 485 pages; 22 yuan.GOOD NIGHT, BEIJING. By Lin Zhe. Zuozhe Publishing House; 271 pages; 13.50 yuan
THERE are two things China has never done: qualified for the World Cup and won the Nobel prize for literature. Though both failures are irksome, the latter is the more vexing for a nation that likes to think that it has a fine literary tradition.
Chinese writers used to blame the cold war and state-imposed concepts of Socialist Realism for their low international standing. That excuse has worn thin. The lurid plots of the bestselling novels in China indicate that, for literature, the communist censors are taking time off. Instead of writing about joyful tractorists who fulfil their production quotas, novelists these days write about kinky sex, drug addiction and extreme violence. They are handicapped not so much by a lack of freedom, at least so long as they steer clear of politics, as by their own lack of originality.
Stereotype one: the family comes before the individual. One of the most talked about novels in China is “Broken Tile” by Su Tong, a writer who first became popular with “Wives and Concubines” (1987), a book which inspired a film, “Raise the Red Lantern”, that was widely acclaimed in the West but heavily criticised in China.
Like “Wives and Concubines”, “Broken Tile” peers behind the thick walls of a courtyard where many members of a Chinese family live together. The family life of Hua Jindou is filled with horror. His wife, the auspiciously-named Phoenix, commits suicide by hanging herself in the warehouse of the village's factory. Hua, blinded by grief, sets fire to a warehouse and, after being imprisoned, hangs himself in his cell.
His spirit, though, returns to watch helplessly the decline of his family. All kinds of misfortunes befall his five children. One of his daughters, Xinlan, dies of a mishandled abortion in the hands of a peasant doctor; another, Xinmei, a beauty, marries a cripple. His only son, Duhu, turns out to be a homosexual, thus ruining his father's hopes that he will produce an heir.
By adopting the perspective of a dead father who flagellates himself for the evils suffered by his family, Su Tong achieves tension. What is missing is fully drawn individual characters to make the tragedy of the cursed family convincing.
Hong Feng's “A Comedy Year” is not the tale of a single family but a crop of family stories, each about a marriage which ends in divorce. The story of Daya is typical: she is young, charming and successful, but unable to love because she is traumatised by the memory of being raped by four men when she was 18. She changes after she meets Lao Hong, the editor of a literary magazine in Beijing. She is instantly attracted by his fatherly, gentle ways. He rekindles her desire, but at a price. His own marriage ends ludicrously, and he is rendered impotent. Like other stories in “The Comedy Year”, the story about Daya is so schematic that it is hard to accept, even in the context of post-modernist discourse on women's empowerment at the expense of men's castration.
“The Key”, by Wang Qinghui, also deals in stereotyped themes, this time that the rich suffer too. Its hero, Aolun, comes, like the author, from the ragged, cold north-east of China. But he moves to the country's most southern point, the tropical island of Hainan, where he makes his fortune. The story is set some time in the next century, a vantage point which permits Aolun to look back at horrific events in recent Chinese history and to reflect, for instance, on the madness of the Cultural Revolution.
Yet, as his life draws to an end, the 86-year-old Aolun is far from happy. He has had three wives and is separated from all of them. His three children, none of them the children of his former wives, have become his enemies. Tong Yao, his first girlfriend and the only woman he ever truly loved (her name means nursery rhyme), remains behind in the bitterly cold north. Listening to the beat of ocean waves on a small island he has bought in the South China Sea, Aolun is alone with his memories of the women in his life.
In “Good Night, Beijing”, Lin Zhe tells a similar sad story. Her central character is Bai Ling, a girl from a poor mountainous village in China's hinterland. She achieves fame and fortune as a film star, comes to own a prosperous company that sells medical lotions and potions, and writes a bestseller: an account of her life as an actress. Her home is repeatedly described as “sumptuous” in the novel.
But Bai Ling's apparent happiness is as false as her acclaimed autobiography, which was, in fact, written not by herself but by a poet named Li Jun. Her life is made wretched by her affections, which are divided between her first love, the Hong Kong tycoon who made her rich, the poor but talented poet and the father of her understandably confused 11-year-old daughter, Nini.
On this form, Chinese footballers will qualify for the World Cup long before a Chinese novelist wins the Nobel prize.