Sun, Feb 11, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Zhu Wen makes a laughingstock out of China

Zhu Wen's book, a collection of best-selling satires that adroitly chronicles life in contemporary China, was written in a kind of page-ripping frenzy

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Another fine translator, Howard Goldblatt, has lamented that modern literature in Chinese often appears in translation from academic presses, and as a result has a limited circulation. And valiant as Columbia's efforts are, this book really ought to be coming from a popular imprint. Here are stories that would make anyone laugh, and with translations as good as these, they could stand on their own feet as classic comic fiction of the highest order.

But so wildly is consumerism raging in China that these recently best-selling works are already impossible to find in bookshops, and the translator had to get hold of the author's original manuscript for I Love Dollars — even he no longer possessed a printed copy.

The other five stories in this volume vary in intensity but are unflaggingly interesting nonetheless. One recalls Wen's life in the power plant (inane officialdom combining with technical ineptitude to produce the collapse of an endlessly polluting project), another featuring mafiosi that the authorities consider best left alone, and the author sees as part and parcel of the commercial free-for-all, a third about a trip up the Yangtze, with police spies fuelling the narrator's already Kafka-like paranoia.

It must be emphasized that the brilliant translation follows an equally brilliant Introduction. In this Julia Lovell anatomizes the entire Wen phenomenon, noting in conclusion that specific comment on politics has all but disappeared from contemporary literature in China. It's not so much that the dangers are too great, but that everyone's too busy making money — or satirizing the cult of making money — to care all that much. But the inescapable implication is that corruption and self-seeking, so pervasive at the grass-roots level, are simply magnified the higher up you go, if anyone dared to look.

These stories are written in a kind of page-ripping frenzy. The apparent speed of composition clearly goes hand in hand with Zhu Wen not even bothering to keep copies of his own books, and his eventual shoulder-shrugging abandoning of authorship altogether.

If you believe, as I do, that most businessmen are simultaneously infantile and psychotic, then the dire effects of allowing an entire nation to be taken over by their values isn't hard to imagine. This wonderful book encapsulates these effects in five devastating satires. I Love Dollars is a publication that's not to be missed.

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