with a Preface by Julia Lovell
The cover screams “The Book No One in China Dares to Publish,” the Financial Times and The Observer have offered ad-like reviews, and copies have spilled off bookstore displays in Hong Kong and London for months; The Fat Years is the new must-have for the politically righteous book consumer in the English-speaking world. Consumer, that is, not reader, since most reports mention little about the story other than its premise. Probably better this way, since aesthetics too often fail when put up against political righteousness.
Alas, the book is as heavy-handed as the state propaganda it criticizes, and there is more intrigue behind the no one in “no one in China” than within the book’s pages. The premise is interesting enough—a month of recent history has gone missing, and a small group of intellectuals and dropouts from the Party agenda are on a mission to find out why—but the 300-page novel offers two hundred pages of exposition as preface to a hundred page-long epilogue.
The obvious touchpoints for such political paranoia in English and American literature are George Orwell and Thomas Pynchon. But think of the tense urgency of Winston and Julia running from Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or the slaphappy imagination of the “eleven lost days” of the Calendar Reform of 1752 in Mason & Dixon: instead of imaginative allegories and dramatic development, The Fat Years reads like a failed experiment in telling rather than showing. Questions about whether contemporary Chinese fiction need adhere to English and American standards have their place, of course, but since the novel refers not only to Huxley’s Brave New World, but also to Joyce and Proust, comparisons are not quite cultural imperialism; nor does diversity require fans of modern and post-modern literature in English to like this book if they read it.
In the epilogue, for instance, the three protagonists—writer Old Chen, vagabond Fang Caodi, and lawyer-turned-activist Little Xi—have kidnapped central government official He Dongsheng, and now get to listen to him lecture on recent Chinese history and political economy. It is a captive lecture, not a captivating one: what he says is informative, revealing, and boring. Even the author seems to know this: “This was certainly a long, slow night. As Old Chen, Little Xi and Fang Caodi listened to He Dongsheng bombard them with information, their emotions went on a rollercoaster ride; they were totally exhausted, and yawning continuously.” In his afterword the translator attempts to salvage this section, saying “Some readers may regard this as a tedious ‘soap box monologue’ lacking in drama, but they would be mistaken,” because the lecture recreates “the way the Party leadership talks to the 1.3 billion Chinese.” An interesting tactic for a book whose primary selling point is political virtue—it’s as dramatic as Party leadership lecturing the people!
A fundamental problem to The Fat Years is that the main characters are not on the run from the government but chasing it. This is not only a problem of plot design but of politics, as well, since instead of compelling the reader to ask “At what price stability?” stability itself is made victim, and the protagonists cast as chaotic elements who threaten the only system China knows. Such would be the political concerns, at any rate, if more than a handful of citizens of the PRC could read the novel (expecting censorship in the mainland, Chan Koonchung sent it only to publishers in Hong Kong and Taiwan, so the “no one” who dared publish the book in China includes Chan himself); meanwhile, we Anglophone readers can congratulate ourselves for being brave enough to oppose totalitarianism.
We will, however, have to muddle through Michael S. Duke’s translation, which reads like a solid second draft rushed to publication before the editors could suggest revisions. While the plot of the Chinese version drags, at least the sentences come in a colloquially zippy style, which the English has not reproduced: it stumbles over Chinese forms of address, overuses adverbs like “certainly” and “actually,” and is stuck in simplistic sentence structure throughout. Compare how Duke writes in the Translator’s Note (“The novel posits a mystery while at the same time offering a social and political critique of the nation in which the mystery takes place”) with how he translates:
This year is the year of my zodiac sign, and a lot of strange things are bound to happen. Things like getting so worked up that I burst into tears, or like meeting Little Xi and Fang Caodi one after the other after such a long time—I think all these things are vaguely connected.
And shouldn’t a sentence like “After I returned to Hong Kong, I happened to see an advertisement for property in Taikoo Shin, so I quickly placed a down payment on the apartment I’ve mentioned before, and started to build a nest for two” provide either less (“After returning to Hong Kong I noticed an ad for property in Taikoo Shin, so I made a down payment and started building a nest for two”)—or more (in Chinese the sentence mentions putting down his entire savings from ten years of work)?
But even a great translation could hardly make The Fat Years compelling enough to match its claims on political virtue. Towards the end of He Dongsheng’s lecture, he threatens his listeners with worse than what they know: “I can see that you lack the imagination to comprehend genuine evil.” At this point, the reader will have a hard time avoiding a similar conclusion about the novel itself: not that its author cannot comprehend the evils of China today (evil is banal, after all, and does not require much imagination to comprehend), but that he could not avail himself of the imagination necessary to describe its pervasive erasure of the historical knowledge dissent requires, as well as the necessity of acting against it.