It's a commonly paraded view that over the last decade China's exclusive preoccupation with getting rich has eroded traditional values just as effectively as the Cultural Revolution did 40 years ago. In this book, a collection of some of his best-selling satires dating from the 1990s, maverick writer Zhu Wen (朱文) turns this sad situation into high comedy. Maybe he thinks the state of affairs is too tragic to contemplate directly, but when a son's Confucian reverence manifests itself in trekking round Beijing searching for nubile young girls for his father to sleep with, or manipulating his dad's penis for 15 pages so that he can urinate into a plastic hospital bottle, you realize the truth of a maxim attributed to Karl Marx -— things that first appear as tragedy tend to manifest themselves the second time round as farce.
Great satire — think of Swift or Kurt Vonnegut — has frequently been outlandishly comic on the surface while barely managing to disguise the despair at human stupidity and viciousness that lies underneath. These six stories are very much in this tradition, except that the comedy is so manic that you need to be nudged now and again before you're aware of the serious indignation at China's newfound commercialism that's also part of the author's world-view.
Most people, if they've heard of Wen at all, know him as a film director. His 2001 feature Seafood (海鮮) won the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and South of the Clouds (雲的南方) was awarded the NETPAC Prize at the Berlin Festival in 2004. But after working in a power plant for five years after graduating, his first break into fame, in 1994, was with books. The novella I Love Dollars (我愛美元), with its explicit sexuality and relentless absurdity, was a run-away popular success all over China. It's now the title story in this new English-language collection.
Among the first things that need to be said about this admirable publication from Columbia is that the translation and introduction, both by Cambridge University's Julia Lovell, couldn't be of higher quality. To illustrate how she manages to pen colloquial comic prose, consider the following, surprising from an academic: "How the hell had I ended up with this psychotic girlfriend? And then I was struck, stirred, even more powerfully than usual, by the sway of her perfect, rounded buttocks. I hung back behind, making silent plans to unite our contradictions before dinner."
Wen's essential position is that China is turning into one enormous shopping mall. To give consumption its full rein, all traditional restraints have been driven away. Money "erodes our self-restraint only to make us realize we never had any in the first place." Goods are cheap and the people are cheaper still. "Better to be Father than me, me than my son, my son than my grandson. Whenever I see a baby, my heart fills with pity. Why so late, unlucky child?"
The belief that things are constantly getting worse, plus hatred for a meretricious present, may be characteristic viewpoints of the old everywhere, but they frequently characterize satire at its highest level too, as they do in these fine stories.
Wen is smart enough to portray himself as just as cheapened by the pervading commercialism as everyone else. "I knew full well my tears were cheap, as were my emotions," he writes. "I was a cheap person, in an age that burned to sell cheap, my natural habitat the clearance warehouse, pushed carelessly to the end of a shelf, happy to write for anyone who tossed me a couple of coins."
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.