It’s unusual I actually do anything I say I’m going to, but I’ve just read a novel by Wang Xiaobo.
I’m quite impressed by this, as it’s usually the case that I get halfway through Chinese novels and then just give up. I tried 活着 (filmed as To Live) but found it really quite dull. I gave up around the part it seemed the guy’s life couldn’t get any worse (although that describes most of the book.) I’m entirely sure this is due to my failure to understand / appreciate the book, but that didn’t make it any more interesting.
Wang Xiaobo’s 黄金时代 (Golden Years) though, kept me reading. One of the things I liked about it is that at around 30,000 characters, it’s quite short. Brevity is a virtue in all writing, and in Chinese writing I find it a positive blessing. It gives me less opportunity to give up.
Probably the single largest factor in my finding Wang Xiaobo readable is that he is funny. The images and phrases reflect the absurdity of the time – the book tells the tale of Wang Er, a twenty-one year old Beijinger sent to Yunnan during the Cultural Revolution – bringing us both a laugh and a touch of the surreal. He does this right from the start . . .
One day she came down from the mountains, to talk with me about how she wasn’t a slut.
I’ve often thought that the Chinese sense of humor, once you get past crosstalk and into day-to-day banter, is very similar to the British. I think this is particularly true here.
All the needles in our clinic were losing their plating, and some were even hooked and would pull chunks of my flesh out. My waist wound up scarred, like I’d been peppered with grapeshot. And so I thought of Chen Qingyang, the medic with the 15th production team – she was a Beijing University Medical School graduate, and could presumably tell the difference between a needle and a hook.
Our narrator – the lanky, horny Wang Er – is eminently likeable as he copes as best he can with the the randomness of the Cultural Revolution and women.
My not existing was great for the leaders, as it would prove that one of their young intellectuals hadn’t been beaten. And as for myself, existing or existing didn’t really matter.
“Hey! Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Of course. Could I get you to move over a bit? I need to get some light to see how it all works.”
There was a huge clap, like thunder by my ear. She’d slapped me. I jumped up, grabbed my clothes and ran.
Towards the end of the book Wang Er and Chen Qingyang are struggled against and forced to write self-criticisms. Although even this is approached with humor – the leaders slaver over their self-criticisms of their sexual misdemeanors – it is worth remembering that this did really happen – it is not just comedy, it’s history, and it wasn’t a little bit funny.
It is frustrating that when reading literature in a foreign language, you can’t be sure you’ve understood everything. I think I did a fairly good job with this novel though, and I’m going to continue with Wang Xiaobo, as there’s plenty of stuff to read and he seems to have been kind enough not to write anything too long. I’m delighted to have found a Chinese author I can both understand and enjoy.