To get rich is glorious

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.

I Love Dollars. I’ve linked to a paperback edition but I read it on my Kindle. There’s another review which may be of interest here.

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14 Comments

Filed under Chinese, Lovell. Julia (translator), Novellas, Short stories, Wen, Zhu

14 responses to “To get rich is glorious

  1. leroyhunter

    Sounds great Max…bleak, but great. I like the set-up you describe in the first story, with the narrator’s assumptions of his father’s thoughts & attitudes driving the story but being gradually undermined.

    Interesting point you make about works set in China seeking to reassure a western reader. I’ve read nothing from China (well, bar Sun-Tzu) so am not aware of that agenda, but I can see why it would be present. Is this different solely by virtue of being written by someone Chinese? or is it that Zhu Wen has taken a deliberately different approach to his contemporaries?

  2. Not every story is equally strong. One of the downsides I’m finding of writing stuff up two weeks or more after reading it (due to my holiday) is that some elements fade from view.

    So the second and third stories are I think very strong indeed, and the first has a lot to say, but the fourth while it gets good starts off with a rather tedious extended joke about wheels. I suspect if I’d been writing closer to the time of reading I’d have mentioned that in the blog entry itself.

    That said, it is still a very interesting set of stories. I understand it’s part of what was then a new wave of Chinese writing, much of which talked about matters previously banned. Sex not least among the topics.

    Political criticism however still tends to be veiled, the hospital story is scathing but it never outright says the Chinese health system is atrocious. Rather it tells scatological jokes and sets up a ludicrously excessive conflict, and leaves enough detail in the background to let the reader draw their own conclusions.

    Zhu Wen was then writing different stuff to many of his contemporaries, but he wasn’t unique. A comparison could be Haruki Murakami (though there are no stylistic similarities) – he’s not writing mainstream Japanese fiction but he’s not a lone voice ignored in his own land exactly either. Zhu Wen is a major figure, but he’s a controversial one (or was).

    In terms of comfort, I think a lot of fiction generally is published to fit with expectations. It’s not an issue unique to Chinese fiction. In the case of Chinese though it means tons of novels about the Cultural Revolution, which important as it was happened now a very long time ago.

    Trevor reviewed one here: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2010/08/09/ah-cheng-the-king-of-trees/ which is the sort of novel I’m more used to seeing published about China (though clearly a well written example). Novels addressing the country’s now as opposed to its then are much rarer.

  3. I thought the name seemed familiar. There’s a huge gap in my reading when it comes to Chinese fiction. Some aspects of I Love Dollars reminds me of Greenaway’s 8 1/2 Women (the father-son team, I suppose).

    I recently discovered that Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern are also based on books.

  4. I didn’t know that for either of them. I have more Chinese fiction coming up in a bit. Red Dust was interesting, a bit repetitive in places but very influential in terms of contemporary Chinese literature I understand.

  5. I can only congratulate you on reading such a “savage and nihilistic” book – I am sure its a significant contribution to world literature but I’m not sure I would be able to persevere with it. I will watch your blog to see what you make of other Chinese fiction.

  6. For some mysterious reason, I didn’t get your post in my mail box.
    It seems interesting and I know someone who will be interested in learning more about Chinese society.
    I’m not a good reader of Chinese literature but I recommend you “Le Livre d’un homme seul” by Gao Xingjian. It was written in French and published in 2000. It means “The book of a lonely man” but I couldn’t find the English title, sorry. I suppose it’s been translated though as Gao Xingjian is Nobel Prize winner.

  7. To be honest Tom, the first story is the only one that’s particularly difficult to read. The second and third which I liked best are also extremely funny, and the comedy while dark keeps you going. The first is I grant rather depressing, it’s hard after a while not to feel sorry for the father and the whole picture painted is rather dispiriting.

    I’m not sure I’d say it’s that big a contribution to world literature, but it contributed to Chinese literature. I suspect though it will be a work that paves the way for other, better books, if that makes sense.

    Bookaround, thanks, I’ll definitely look that up. It’s not one I know.

  8. Some Chinese writers left China in 1989 and now live in Paris. Some write in French, like Dai Sijie who wrote “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”

    If you wish I can look for other ideas

  9. PS : reading Theophile Gauthier ? Wow, chapeau bas ! I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts. I’ve never managed to finish Le Capitaine Fracasse.

  10. BTW, this post didn’t arrive via e-mail either. A glitch?

  11. Chapeau bas?

    I really enjoyed the Gautier actually. Very funny in places.

    The last two posts were done using the Schedule function instead of the Publish function. It must not trigger the email alert when using that, which is worth knowing.

    I would be interested in knowing of other Chinese works written in French. I’ve heard of the Balzac one, which got a lot of attention (no idea how good it is though).

  12. Sorry, I saw “chapeau bas” in English in an Anglophone book once, I thought you had adopted the expression, as for ‘cliché’. It means “to doff one’s hat to somebody” : in other word, “Wow”, but in an old fashion way from the 19th century.
    I may not have tried the easiest Gautier.

    I’ll look for the Chinese authors. I remember reading Ya Ding as a teenager and I liked it.
    I have read Balzac and the Little Chinese Steamstress and it’s good.

  13. I’ve done some research for Chinese authors writing in French. Here are the ones I found:

    – François Cheng: The River Below. I don’t know him but he’s a member of the Académie Française, it’s supposed to be an honor.

    – Ya Ding: The Earth Sings. I’m afraid his other books have not been translated from French, or I don’t have the right Pinyin transcription of his name.

    – Dai Sijie: “Balzac and the Little Chinese Steamstress.”
    “Once on a Moonless Night” I haven’t read this one.

    – Gao Xingjan: “Soul Mountain”. Like I said before, “Le Livre d’un homme seul” (The Book of a Lonely Man) is very good. I haven’t read “Soul Mountain.”

    – Shan Sa: The Girl Who Played Go. I’ve heard it’s good.

    I haven’t read Mo Yan, who writes in Chinese, but apparently “Big Breasts and Wide Hips: a Novel” is good and so is “Red Sorghum: a Novel of China”

    I also found a writer named Qiu Xiaolong who writes crime fiction. That can be fun too. Maybe you know him.

    I’ve read Pa Kin (Ba Jin in Pinyin transcription), a book entitled “Le Jardin du repos” which means “The Garden of Rest”, but I’m not sure it’s been translated. It was good. He’s also known for his book “Family”.

    I thought I would find more Francophone authors I didn’t know. I would recommend you to start with Gao Xingjan and Pa Kin.

  14. Thanks Bookaround, very much appreciated.

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