Notes on Books

Today, PEN launches its groundbreaking report on free expression and human rights in China.
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Today, PEN launches its groundbreaking report on free expression and human rights in China.

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PEN launches the Twitter campaign #shesnotfree in support of Chinese artist and poet Liu Xia on the eve of our landmark report on China. Read more


PEN launches the Twitter campaign #shesnotfree in support of Chinese artist and poet Liu Xia on the eve of our landmark report on China.

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The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung (Anchor Books, 2013. Trans. from the Chinese by Michael S. Duke)

Chan Koonchung—who was raised in Hong Kong, has studied in Boston, worked for many years as a successful journalist/editor, and now lives in Beijing—knows what Westerners go for, so he has packaged a novel with all the necessary ingredients: references to the Tiananmen Square massacre, a succinct compilation of the most important events in 20th century Chinese history—this alone is evidence of the audience the author had in mind, as one would only do that for a foreign audience—and criticism of China’s “Golden Age of Ascendency.” There isn’t a cheaper way to success than giving people what they want, and Chan Koonchung knows exactly what a Western, in particular an American audience, wants to hear about China.

The novel’s premise isn’t bad, but to compare it with Orwell, as it has been done, or to call it a satire, when you can’t find a grain of wit or irony in it just shows how gullible Western readers are. The translation may be partially responsible for the cardboard atmosphere, but the main culprit is, no doubt, the author. From the get-go this is a book for fast-food lovers (read: lovers of preprocessed cultural experiences), and this is a novel written as if the author had a list with points to check, all based on market research: does he need a reference to English-language literature? Jane Austen. A reference to French culture? [insert name of] French red wine.

I can see why this novel has gotten so much attention: if you are an American businessman or journalist obsessed with the ascendance of China, this novel contains a lot of interesting information about contemporary China, without being too alienating in its cultural references, which are all carefully selected. But if you are actually interested in literature—after all, this book claims to be a novel—look for something else. The worst thing about this book, however, is not its bad writing and preprocessed message, but the fact that a product conceived in the most abject Capitalist style (that is, by conforming to the expectations of the largest possible market) can actually fool people by pretending that it’s the opposite of what it is.

“What distinguishes a creator of culture from its consumers?” (Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future, trans. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull)

This book written in the 1920s in Russia by a man who couldn’t publish because what he wrote couldn’t satisfy the “realist” taste of the Communist authorities is not an easy read, but it has some extraordinary pages. Some American reviewers call him “surrealist” because the reality he describes doesn’t correspond to their definition of reality. Bullshit! What would people do if the word “surrealist” didn’t exist? This has nothing to do with surrealism. Maybe the Soviet reality of the time was surreal, but poor Sigizmund had no intention of being “surrealist”! Let’s remember that the surrealists were either being playful or were trying to subvert the “rational” way of looking at things. But Russian and East European writers don’t need to “subvert” this rational way of perceiving the real because they don’t perceive it in this rational way to being with. They are naturally “irrational” (that is, according to the Western definition of “reason”)—i.e., they do not necessarily use a cause-effect logic.

SK was a kin soul to Felipe Alfau. His characters not only become independent of their creator, but turn into critics, denying their author’s existence—“they are the book’s atheists.”

In one of the book’s dialogues, one of the characters asks, “What distinguishes a creator of culture from its consumers?”

The answer is the best definition of the artist I have ever read:

“Honesty”—and this is why:

What distinguishes them is the fact that, unlike other people, the creator gives back what he receives on credit from nature. Every day the sun “lends its rays to every one of us.” To give something back is a duty of anyone who “doesn’t wish to be a thief of his own existence. Talent is just that, a basic honesty on the part of ‘I’ toward ‘not I’, a partial payment of the bill presented by the sun: the painter pays for the colors of things with the paints on his palette […:] the philosopher pays for the world with his worldview.”

In other words: Honesty toward a higher order of things (not toward your next-door neighbor)

On Josip Novakovich’s Salvation and Other Disasters

(Josip Novakovich is a writer of Croatian origin, who moved to the States when he was twenty.)

While reading Novakovich’s highly captivating stories in Salvation and Other Disasters, I kept wondering what makes them so different from other contemporary American short stories. The most obvious difference is, for me, the fact that his writing appears very “natural,” as if there were no “craft” or struggle involved in it. Many contemporary American short stories are very “well crafted” from a technical point of view, yet one often wonders what was the point of writing them. With Novakovich, the opposite happens: every single story tells us something essential about the human being, but it does it in a way that appears very simple and natural. I say “appears” because a “very simple and natural” surface is often the result of a very sophisticated mind. Apparent simplicity is far from simplistic. In fact, Novakovich’s simplicity is on a par with that of great storytellers. The lack of apparent artifice is due, at least in part, to the fact that his stories often come from an oral tradition. They sound as if he were telling them to a friend in a bar. Sometimes they even sound like, “A man (usually a Croat) walks into a bar…”

Reading Salvation and Other Disasters I managed to articulate a thought I never quite succeeded in putting into words before: that a certain Eastern European aesthetic specificity that cannot be categorized either entirely under “realism” nor under “magic realism” or “surrealism” (as it is often improperly called) belongs to a different aesthetic category, which I would call “aesthetic exaggeration” or “exaggerated realism” or “hyperrealism.” The idea came to me from a remark by Thomas Bernhard, who, referring to his own exaggerations, noted that “Exaggeration is the best way of telling the truth.”

Many of Novakovich’s stories are told in a realist way—some are based on the horrors of the Balkan wars, others on the horrors of WWII, and others on his childhood in Croatia in the 1960s, which resembles uncannily my own childhood in Romania in the 1970s. But almost every single story has some detail that escapes realism, and which, nevertheless, is not gratuitous. For instance, in “Sheepskin,” a Croat man is so hungry during the war in the 90s that he eats sheepskin. (Personally, I doubt that the Croats, no matter how hungry they might have been, ate sheepskin in those years.) This man, who had been tortured by a Serb, meets him later by chance, follows him to a restaurant (yes, that is a restaurant, not a store) where the Serb negotiates with the waiter the purchase of a sheepskin jacket, and eventually shoots the Serb from the back. In the end, the Croat realizes that he’d been wrong and the man he killed was not the one who’d tortured him. He then meets the man’s wife and falls in love with her. One can tell that there is a point to everything that happens in the story, and that no matter how absurd or non-realist things might appear, they are not gratuitous—nor are they used to “spice up” the gory details.

Or, take “Real Estate”—a story whose humor, I think, can be entirely appreciated only by an Eastern European. A Croat man confesses that he hates all the Serbs and he tells us why. In his youth, his chances of becoming a great basketball player were ruined when a Serb player hit him during an important game; the enraged Croat violently attacked the Serb and his career ended there. As it happens, the same Serb stole from him the Serb woman he was courting. The Croat ends up marrying another woman, and when, later, he meets the Serb again, the latter is a successful psychiatrist and is married to the Croat’s former lover. But the Serb gives him a different version: he hadn’t hit him on purpose while playing, and the woman he married had been his lover before being with the Croat.

When the war between the Serbs and the Croats ends, the Croat realizes that now that he is on the winners’ side, he could use this to his advantage and appropriate the beautiful house of the Serb if he were to convince him to leave the country. The two men agree on a price, and during the negotiations, the Croat, who never got over the woman who is now married to the Serb, asks him to include her in the deal. The Serb advances a counterproposal: to swap wives. This is the point where the idea of aesthetic exaggeration (and Eastern European dark humor) comes into play. The absurdity of the situation—of which the two enemies are quite aware—is pushed to its ultimate limit, so in the end, the insanity of it all seems rather funny, and even the two men laugh at it together. In the end, none of them sleeps with the other’s wife, the Serb leaves the country, the Croat gets his house, and eventually becomes a successful real estate agent.

But the story that deserves a prize for dark humor is “A Free Fall”—one of the funniest stories I have ever read. It is about a man with a wooden leg, which he calls “Oaky.” Now, having said this, I realize that some people might think, “a story about a handicapped person”—and I wonder if contemporary American readers could read this story by using a different frame than that of a “disability.” Obviously, such a story would not be funny. But Novakovich’s story is NOT about a “handicap.” The mode in which the story is written is not that of dramatic realism—which is the customary mode of contemporary American stories (unless they are written in a fantastic mode). But this story is neither realist, nor fantastic. It is an aesthetic exaggeration in the same way that a caricature is an exaggeration. It is funny in the same way a caricature is funny. In the story, the wooden leg becomes a “fragment” of a man’s body—the narrator, with whom the author, obviously, identifies. This man has a problem not only with his leg, but also with other parts of his body that have become fragmented (his hair, which is falling), his penis, and his balls (or rather, his ball because he had lost one during an operation). I’ll stop here: one has to read the story in order to appreciate it. All I can say is that I would put it on the same level with some of the greatest, most absurd stories ever written (by such authors as Kobo Abe, Gogol, Daniil Kharms or Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky).

« Il faut inventer de nouvelles techniques, impossibles à reconnaître, qui ne ressemblent à aucune opération existante, pour éviter la puérilité du ridicule. Il faut se construire un monde propre, sans confrontation possible… pour lequel il n’existe pas de mesures de jugement, et qui doit être nouveau comme les techniques. Nul ne doit comprendre qu’un auteur ne vaut rien, qu’il est anormal, inférieur, que comme un ver il se tord et s’étire pour survivre. Nul ne doit le prendre en péché d’ingénuité. Tout doit paraître parfait, fondé sur des règles inconnues donc non mises en doute… comme chez un fou, oui un fou. (…) Il ne faut pas qu’on croit à l’acte d’un incapable, d’un impuissant. Ce choix doit paraître sûr, solide, élevé et presque prépondérant. Nul ne doit se douter qu’un signe est réussi “par hasard”.”Par hasard”, c’est horrible. Lorsqu’un signe est réussi, par miracle, il faut immédiatement le garder, le conserver … Personne ne doit s’en apercevoir. L’auteur est un idiot frissonnant, aussi mesquin que médiocre. Il vit dans le hasard et dans le risque, déshonoré comme un enfant. Sa vie se réduit à la mélancolie et au ridicule… d’un être qui survit dans l’impression… d’avoir perdu quelque chose pour toujours.»
Roman Nights and Other Stories by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini’s Roman Nights proves (if such proof is needed) that, at its best, fiction isn’t written according to some “rules” one has been taught in a class or a workshop. The stories are written in a way that defies any kind of rule or even structure.

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I just discovered this review of my book of prose poems, Voice of Ice.

Duo Duo’s Snow Plain

Duo Duo (b. 1951), one of the most important contemporary Chinese poets, is from a generation that witnessed the persecution of its parents—intellectuals qualified as “degenerate bourgeois” by the communists—and came of age during Mao’s so-called “Cultural Revolution,” when these intellectuals and bourgeois were exiled to the countryside to do manual labor. After the crush of Tiananmen Square in 1989 Duo Duo lived in Europe for fifteen years, and then returned to China. These two very different experiences are, obviously, present in his writings.

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All This Belongs to Me (Northwestern University Press, 2009, trans. by Alex Zucker) by the Czech writer Petra Hulová (b. 1979)

Petra Hulová’s novel was published in the Czech Republic when she was in her early twenties, documenting her experience during the time she’d spent in Mongolia. It is written in the voices of five women from the same family, who belong to three different generations, and it depicts the conflicting interactions between them, and those between a traditional, rural world and the modern (albeit poor), urban world of Ulaanbaatar. The English translation was awarded the 2010 translation prize of the American Literary Translators’ Association.