In a novel full of humour Liu Zhenyun bears witness to the impact of the cellphone on turn of the century China
Le Monde, 21st April, 2017
By François Bougon
Translated by Catherine Alice Crowther
Liu Zhenyun is a master of the art of the comic situation. This no doubt explains why many of his novels have been adapted for film or TV. Feng Xiaogang, a Chinese Steven Spielberg, directed the film version of Liu’s breakout novel Cellphone. It was a box-office hit and made Liu the sort of celebrity who is stopped in the street for selfies. Fourteen years after its first publication (in 2003) the novel has finally been translated into French.
This time lapse allows us to take stock of the dizzying pace of change in China. Yu Hua, another Chinese author, wrote in the preface to the 2008 French translation of his novel Brothers that China has experienced in one generation the sort of changes that Westerners have taken centuries to digest, and there is certainly something novelistic in this. It also quickly becomes clear that Liu Zhenyun is one of the authors best able to use these changes as material for literature.
Mixed-up Identities and Misunderstandings
Reading one of his novels is like pressing up against a windowpane and gazing out at a fast-moving urban China with all its oddities and novelties. We see the new rich whose purpose in life seems to be spending sprees, but also the poor migrant peasants who have come to the city in the hope of making good and who have only one ambition: to step into the shoes of the new rich. In this urban flux, technological upheavals play an important role: “When I wrote this book I asked myself what, fundamentally, allows society to be changed. We often think of the social and political factors, but I think the technological factor is the most important,” the author explained in a recent interview in Paris.
He depicts these upheavals as a comic playwright would, laying the ground for mixed-up identities and misunderstandings. In Cellphone the protagonist Yan Shouyi is a famous TV presenter who, like Liu Zhenyun, comes from the countryside where he lived through the end of Maoism and the arrival of the telephone in his home village. Yan uses the disruption that ensued in a sketch so successful it makes his TV show “Let’s call a cat a cat”, which discusses society’s problems, into a hit. But at that very moment the cellphone changes everything again. In his private life Yan, a consummate deceiver of his wife, is continually texting his mistress without his wife realizing.
A ticking time bomb, the cellphone leads to countless embarrassing situations for the unfaithful husband. We follow with glee the misadventures of this wretch trapped by his cursed cellphone, with its camera app that allows his mistress to blackmail him.
Today Liu Zhenyun thinks affectionately of this novel as “an old photograph”. But he regards his later works as more important, in particular Someone to Talk To which in 2011 won the Mao Dun Prize, the most important literary award in China. He is already thinking about a popular 2017 trend in China: “friend circles” on the social media network WeChat. Fertile ground for the farcical.
Translated from the Chinese by Hervé Denès with Jia Chunjuan.
Gallimard, “Bleu de Chine” Collection, 2017, 336 pp., €24.