I Love Dollars and other stories, by Zhu Wen
Nowadays Zhu Wen is an acclaimed film director. He has a Venice Grand Jury Prize to his credit among many other accolades. Before that though he was an author and in 1994 he published a novella that satirised the new China he saw around him. That novella was called I Love Dollars and it featured as a protagonist a modern man who was thoroughly in tune with the edicts of Deng Xiaoping’s China – a place in which all that matters is money.
As that protagonist says:
Dollars—they have this intoxicating, exotic generosity of spirit.
The protagonist of I Love Dollars is a writer but not a successful one. His fiction is about sex, which obsesses him. He believes his father is similarly obsessed and so when his father comes briefly to stay with him he sees it as his duty as a faithful son to help him get laid (a complete perversion of traditional Confucian values).
The result is blackly funny. The narrator constantly describes what he and his father are thinking and celebrates how much they are of one mind. As the novella progressed though I started to question that and to wonder if his father’s thoughts were anything like what his son assumed them to be.
Father and I started arguing about whether prostitution was women’s natural vocation. In fact, we held identical opinions on the subject, it was just that he felt there were some things we needed to debate.
When I first read that paragraph I accepted it as written. Later though the narrator argues:
We know sex isn’t a bad or a good thing; all we know is we need it. If we’re not getting any otherwise and it’s being sold on the market, why shouldn’t we go and buy some? As long as we’re paying for the genuine article, at a fair price, into the shopping cart it goes, just like everything else; no need to waste any more mental energy on it. It’s like eating meat: open your mouth and swallow it down, just don’t choke. And sure, you want to eat well, with as much dignity, in as much comfort as you can, to get variety in your diet. Nothing complicated about it, nothing worth engaging with emotionally or intellectually. Sex is the same: you eat, and you’re done.
[to which his father replies:]
Father had soon had enough of my analogy: All right then, he said, I’ll put it in your terms this time. Sex is only the meat in your diet, it can’t be your staple, your rice or flour. But why am I bothering? he went on. Time will teach you these things.
I Love Dollars is savage and nihilistic. The society it depicts is one in which everything is for sale. At one point the father drops some litter accidentally into a shop doorway. The result is a screaming row as the shopkeeper tries to extort a pointlessly trivial fine and the father resists. They meet women almost all of whom are potentially available for the right price. Nothing has a value except in Yuan or Dollars.
The father is an old revolutionary. He argues for something better and asks his son why his writing is about nothing other than sex. The son though thinks sex and money is all there is. Reflecting on his father at one point he muses:
In his day, libido wasn’t called libido, it was called idealism.
In this story it no longer matters what colour the cat is. It’s far from clear though whether it catches mice.
I Love Dollars is only one of six stories present in this collection. The next, A Boat Crossing, is a Kafkaesque tale of a man who takes a night ferry ride which becomes an absurdist vision of menace and paranoia. The third, A Hospital Night, is about a man who ends up spending the night as a hospital visitor looking after his girlfriend’s father who is recovering from a major operation. The ward becomes a sort of hell as a ludicrously epic battle between the protagonist and the old man erupts over the need to help the old man pee.
Kafka is a major influence generally on these stories (as apparently is Borges but I can’t speak to that). For me the strongest were the second and third, both briefly described above, but all six have power. They depict a China which is ruthless, venal and brutal.
In one story criminal gangs have grown rich and those who fall foul of them have no safety net. The police don’t care and contacting them would just annoy the gangs further. In another men work on half pay on a construction project that never ends, but the law does not permit them to resign and seek other jobs. Those who leave without permission however are fired. It sounds nonsensical, but the real horror is that I understand it’s actually fairly accurate to the problems of its day.
All the stories have an autobiographical element. The character in each seems possibly the same man, possibly not, and the jobs they hold are all jobs Zhu Wen had in real life himself (some characters are engineers, which Zhu Wen was before becoming a writer).
The collection is frequently extremely funny. It’s laughter through gritted teeth though. The epic struggle in A Hospital Night is hilarious but by the end of the story it’s apparent that the nurses are only kind to those who pay bribes and that the terminally ill are treated with contempt because there’s no prospect for further profit from them. In the end, only the narrator acts with any humanity, but it’s a dim light in a very black night.
The horrors of this collection are quotidian ones, exaggerated but real. In A Boat Crossing as the narrator waits for the ferry he wants some brief time alone:
I just wanted to find somewhere quiet, deserted, out of the way, somewhere I could relieve my problem. But there was nowhere, the entire length of the two jetties. From one angle or another, I was always visible to other people.
The parallel with life in China generally is obvious. Here there is no escape from other people, but nor is there any comfort in their presence. In another story a character at one point sees someone being brutally beaten. The scene is set up so that I as reader expected him to intervene. He watches until he can stand it no longer:
I’d seen more than enough, so pushed my bike unsteadily over the road, got on, and pedaled desperately away, not stopping until I was back in my room.
It’s not his business. Why should he help? Where’s the profit in that?
There are some oddities in the texts. At times Zhu Wen makes comments such as “we Chinese” or explains how the Chinese language and script give rise to a large number of plays on words. That’s fine, but it made me wonder who the intended audience was. A Chinese reader after all would already know about the way a different pronunciation of a common name could turn it into an insult. Zhu Wen the writer clearly had a foreign readership in mind at times and I would have appreciated a better understanding of the circumstances of the works’ publication.
That criticism aside, this is an excellent translation (by Julia Lovell who also translated my copy of Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution) and it comes with an equally excellent foreword that I’d strongly recommend reading (after reading the stories though as it contains spoilers). That foreword shed real light for me on some of the themes and references contained in the stories and is a pleasure to read in its own right.
Zhu Wen’s China is a place filled with motiveless acts that take place in an atomistic and materalist culture. The prevailing emotions are dread, anomie and anxiety. This is China in transition and it is not a sympathetic place. All too many novels set in China are designed to play to existing Western expectations. They are reassuring. I Love Dollars never reassures.