PuntoFinal, 9th March, 2018
By Ramón Díaz Eterovic【Chile】
Translated by Gerardo Fernández Caballero【Mexico】
Someone to Talk To, by author Liu Zhenyun, is a novel that widely depicts daily life in contemporary China: nearly a century of individual and collective stories in which characters endure the lives they are fated to live—some with more fortune than others. An extended period of time connected by the existence of three members of the same family: Moses Wu, Cao Qinge, and Niu Aiguo; three characters whose existence is marked by the constant search for something to change the course of their lives, their longings, and even the names with which they identify themselves.
Words—both said and not said—are the common factor in this mosaic novel in which a wide range of characters are related to each other by family ties, sentimental bonds, working relationships, and dreams that wear away with the fulfillment of duty—hard labor, mere survival. The majority of characters live the effect of not expressing feelings in words, or the effect of what others have dictated upon them and their destinies. It is also a novel about solitude, in which plenty of characters travel thousands of miles to meet a friend to be listened or given an advice—someone to talk to, as the title suggests. In this sense, it calls our attention that in a world inhabited by millions of people, the individual circle lacks deep affections, interactions that make daily existence more endurable.
Someone to Talk To is a tale that does not give the reader’s interest a break. Subordinate or parallel stories are added to the main plot, and as a whole they portray life in China in a very attractive way. If there exists an analogous work to this in the Latin-American sphere, it undoubtedly is One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, who has been admired by several Chinese authors. In both novels, reality is surrounded by fantastic aspects, and in both there is a voice that reflects multiple characters’ experiences, characters who crave for love and life above everything else. Someone to Talk To is also a locally-tinted novel: the different jobs the main and secondary characters practice, their food and cloth, the music they listen to and the performances or shows they watch; the way in which they relate to each other day by day, the ways in which they express their joys and fears, the organization of their families; their working relationships, their links to other people with similar or dissimilar beliefs… All this and much more spreads wide open in front of the reader, who gets surrounded by both the real and the fantastic—threads that intertwine with each other to create a powerful vital cord. And in the end, there is the sensation of knowing about the existence of the Chinese, an existence marked by a culture that is different from that of the western world, but in which the same feelings are equally at stake for both men and women, far beyond the differences set for them by the environment they live in. What prevails is the desire to live and give life a meaning.
To review the countless anecdotes in this novel is an impossible task; what can be done is to say that each and every one of them are attractive and that, as a whole, they make the novel a major, essential Chinese novel in the sphere we know through translations. Liu Zhenyun’s writing is simple, straightforward, and full of nuances. His voice appropriates traditional verses and popular sayings with mastery; he constructs appealing characters, stories that cause laughter and pain, scenarios rich in details.
Liu Zhenyun, his author, is very well-known in his country, and his works have been translated into several languages. Someone to Talk To won the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2011, and was published by Mexican publishing house Siglo XXI as part of a collection meant to spread the most outstanding works of classic and contemporary Chinese literature in Latin America. Cell Phone, I Did Not Kill My Husband, and Remembering 1942 are three other works by Liu that have been translated into English. To read Someone to Talk To is a recommended experience; the reading of it is enjoyable, and after finishing, the reader feels he has witnessed a living social picture and is eager to learn more about it.