Thu, Mar 02, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Unsettling read

This first novel by Arthur Meursault is a shocking assault on the senses, portraying China as a nation oozing in a morass of bribery, greed, sexual deviance and the worship of the trivial

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

PARTY MEMBERS, by Arthur Meursault.

Taiwan’s Camphor Press has published a new novel that I found more than a little shocking. This first novel by Arthur Meursault (a pseudonym derived from the main character in Albert Camus’s 1942 novel The Stranger) upset me in more ways than one.

To begin with, human bodily products appear more often, and more disgustingly, than I have ever met with in fiction before. Few pages pass before mucus, sperm, urine, feces and vomit make another appearance, often in a context, such as in a KFC restaurant, that makes them even more unwelcome.

Secondly — and the two things are related — there is an absolutely unrelenting assault on modern China such as I have, again, never encountered previously. Nothing escapes this author’s bile, with even the climate joining hands with bribery, greed, pollution, ingratitude, sexual brutality, family hostility, work-place hatreds, the worship of the trivial, slavery to smartphones and a prostration before any and all fashionable brands.

There’s more, too. Think of any location — a bath-house or a brothel, for instance — and you can be sure that when the plot moves there the venue concerned will be depicted in tones of loathing. As for the characters, if they aren’t simply despicable then they’re probably vicious, often criminal, and in two cases capable of murder. If this truly is modern China, then it’s the most unpleasant society that’s ever been seen anywhere on earth. Surely, though, nowhere can be so totally lacking in redeeming features.

Like a lot of obscenity, and all relentless intransigence, this becomes boring after a time. You come almost to expect family treachery, such as when the leading character, a government official, watches his parents being evicted from their home, something he has himself arranged, and shouts at them that they in turn betrayed their own parents to Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, so why do they expect anything better from him?

You might expect from the above a novel that specializes in hyper-realism, however nasty, but one important feature makes it nothing if not surreal. The main character, Yang Wei (whose name the author in an interview points out means impotence), suffers the inconvenience of having his penis talk to him, urging him to defy his finer feelings and go for money and sex like everybody else. In addition to that, the said penis grows in size throughout the book until at the end it has taken its owner over entirely, with the original Yang Wei merely its appendage.

It might be supposed from the title that Party Members is a satire on corruption in official circles. This indeed exists in the book, and very extensively, so that any official who doesn’t take bribes is looked on as being eccentric in the extreme. Nevertheless, virtually every character is portrayed as being despicable in one way or another. Yang Wei never misses an opportunity to ridicule people from rural areas, but also to rob them if by any chance they have acquired some money, getting them, in one case, imprisoned into the bargain just to make sure they don’t report him to his employers. But the authorial voice rarely emerges to stand up for such helpless victims, being more likely to write that they are the product of 5,000 years of submission to authorities they can’t bring themselves to believe can do any wrong.

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