Banality's Fool

Svenska Dagbladet, 17th March, 2017
By Viola Bao
Translated by Nicholas Lawrence

When Chinese author Liu Zhenyun won China’s most prestigious literary prize, the Mao Dun Literature Prize, it was for a serpentine novel of mastadonic proportions. “Yi ju ding yi wan ju” from 2009 – or “Ett ord i rättan tid” as it is called in the 2015 Swedish translation by Anna Gustafsson Chen – is a novel which moves between various different genres; it has been called a postmodern, anti-historical novel, a picaresque, a literary pastiche, a counterfactual dystopia and, at the same time, it is a realistic family history which extends across five generations. Opinion as to what kind of book it is, and how it should be understood, is divided, with the novel’s complex structure and its innumerable characters and supporting characters inviting a variety of interpretations. One thing is clear, however, and that is that it is a novel with which Liu Zhenyun has secured his place as one of Chinese literature’s most esteemed contemporary authors.

Liu Zhenyun was born in 1958 in Yanjin county in Henan province, the son of a farmer. He worked as a teacher and army soldier until the year 1978, two years after the death of Mao Zedong, when he, after completing the college entrance examination, succeeded in getting in at the prestigious Beijing University – where he began studying literature. Debuting the same year as his University graduation, he then worked for a time as a journalist, but didn’t have his breakthrough until the end of the 80’s, with the novel “Yidi jimao” (“Hela marken täckt av fjädrar”), where he, with meticulous realism, depicts the tedious and soulless urban existence of the office worker. It is a theme which also recurs in his later novellas and novels which explore, often in a tragicomic and satirical manner, life in the bureaucratic public sector and at government contractors, where, more often than not, corruption and gross misconduct reign.

In the 80’s and 90’s, Liu Zhenyun and a group of his contemporaries were often referred to as “neo-realists.” This, due to their survey of mundane life with its banal, and often bizarre, practicalities, and their naturalistic depictions of modern middle-class life in the city – following an 80’s in China which was characterized by magical realism and modernist experiments in form. During the 90’s Liu Zhenyun was to also write his celebrated trilogy about his home county of Yanjin – a place which he returns to again and again in his writing – in which he, with a cold sense of humour among other things, depicts the struggle for power over the government of the county and the lasting consequences it will have for two rival families – for generations to come.

Liu Zhenyun’s big, mainstream breakthrough came with the novel “Shouji” (“Mobiltelfonen”) from 2013, in which he entered into a collaboration with the film director Feng Xiaogang, one of China’s most successful commercial filmmakers. It is a collaboration which has become longterm, and with seven novels already having been adapted to film, often with star-studded casts, Liu Zhenyun has reached a large audience which extends well beyond the sphere of literature aficionados – films which have also been shown in a large part of the world outside of China. They are movies of surprisingly diverse scale and genre, everything from the flashy, major historical drama of Hollywood calibre, “Back to 1942” (2012), about the famine in Henan during the Second Sino-Japanese War, to the tastefully stylized “I am not Madame Bovary” (2016) and the feel-good, romantic, relationship comedy “Someone to Talk to” (2016), which premiered at the Stockholm Film Festival last autumn.

The most extravagant of these is “Back to 1942,” a wartime epic which follows a wealthy family from Henan which was, in the 40’s, forced to leave as the Japanese occupiers advanced upon their village and the catastrophic drought gave rise to a famine that forced millions to flee. Behind all this there is, concealed, a darker vein to Liu Zhenyun’s writing. Already in 1992 he wrote the long essay “Wengu 1942 nian” (“Tillbaka till 1942”), which deals with the famine responsible for taking the lives of three million people in Henan, and which has more or less been forgotten in the Chinese account of history. Despite the fact that he himself had numerous relatives who died in the famine, Liu Zhenyun had not heard about the incident until he was thirty-two years old. When he began enquiring after information it became clear that none of the survivors, among them his grandmother, wanted to talk about the period, but rather wanted to forget – and it is this, the typical – according to Liu Zhenyun – Chinese collective amnesia, around which the essay revolves.

In the film, we get to follow alongside the Fan family who join the flow of refugees from Henan, as the famine continues to kill and the Japanese bombs fall from the sky. Meanwhile, the American TIME correspondent Theodor White, played by Adrien Brody, journeys through Henan with a catholic missionary to write about the catastrophe. The province is surrounded by Japanese troops and the Chinese authorities, led at that time by the republican Kuomingtang, have retreated from Henan in order to exploit the famine for the benefit of the war effort. When White’s report is published in TIME Magazine, the Chinese government is forced to dispatch emergency help, the majority of which is embezzled along the way by corrupt bureaucrats. It is a dark and still deeply infected period in recent history which Liu Zhenyun has chosen to bring to light, and the film was delayed by difficulties in receiving permission to film, even though it is not the current, communist regime which is to be held responsible for the famine.

If “Tillbaka till 1942” focuses historical and political developments through the lens of documentary, Liu Zhenyun has, in his later writings, begun to experiment with – and challenge – the genre of the realist novel and its relationship to history. “Ett ord i rättan tid” is an experimental novel in two parts which, in a seemingly realistic manner, records the fate of five generations in nigh on six hundred, information-packed, pages. It offers an immense and roaming band of characters who appear and then disappear, in episodes and stories within the story, and extends across sixty years at least. The novel takes place in an apparently timeless Chinese rural environment and nowhere within the book are there any historical events, nor any trace of their influence upon people’s lives, to be found – a fact which comes across as highly unrealistic in light of China’s revolutionary 20th century history. Individual details are left to act as clues: at one point there is mention of a car of the make “Liberation,” implying that it is a period after the revolution of 1949 in question.

Instead, the focus is upon a collection of individual fates at varying levels of the social ladder, like a Bruegel painting teeming with detail, and where all of the players are caught up in their own lives without the slightest notion of the bigger picture. The first part is largely concerned with the impoverished Yang Baishun, who is tossed from one form of manual labour to the next, and who is trying to find a place for himself within this unfathomable and purposeless existence. Liu Zhenyun writes with restrained, minimalistic prose, in episodic sequences which, in places, ironically mimic the rhetoric of fairy tale, and with parodically schematic introductions of every new character, which have been read by literature professor Jeffrey Kinkley as a pastiche, not only of the Ming and Qing dynasty novel, but also of “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

Much like Márquez’s novel, it is a novel which is to a large degree about solitude. The feeling of rootlessness and purposelessness fills Baishun ever increasingly for every new job that he takes, and culminates in an all-encompassing grief when his five-year-old stepdaughter Qiaoling is kidnapped and disappears. In the second part of the novel the reader meets Qiaoling once again, sixty years later and having grown up in another family, and who is now plagued by her past and the father she has lost. When she returns to her father’s hometown, Yanjin, nothing is as it was and all the people she knew are dead.

With a masterly stroke, Liu Zhenyun succeeds with his tightly interweaved narrative web in bringing to life a complex illumination of the Chinese class society and its varying shades, with an eye honed especially upon the impoverished rural inhabitants – while he also manages shift down from the narrator’s bird’s-eye-view to a more human scale when it comes to his main characters. By way of an amplified range, and many a detailed chain of events, the novel succeeds in creating an almost physical sense of time, in a way perhaps only afforded to the slow-burning written word, which means that Qiaolong’s return to Yanjin in search of her father – and following that, that of her son as he seeks to understand his mother – feels rawly affecting and intimate. Because, above all else, the novel is about interpersonal connection and human intimacy – about how easily they can be lost, and the solitude to which an ever-changing and disenchanted world condemns us.

In his latest novel, “Wo bushi Pan Jinlian” from 2012 – in Swedish “Processen,” translated by Anna Gustafsson Chen – Liu Zhenyun returns to the satirical critique of public agencies which he has cultivated in so many of his earlier works. Here it is a case of a destitute but headstrong farmer who files a plaint against her husband. When the plaint is rejected, spurred on by a holy rage, she appeals to higher and higher authorities in a process which becomes more and more drawn-out and complicated, and during which she goes from being, in the eyes of the men in suits, a powerless woman to a bloodthirsty goddess of revenge. It is a modern, farcical David and Goliath story set in an absurd Chinese governmental environment, which, in Liu Zhengyun’s typical tragicomic fashion, ridicules the corruption and bureaucracy of the public sector, at the same time as it sketches a tender portrait of a vulnerable woman who, against all odds, refuses to surrender her voice.

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