Tuesday, 13 May 2014

'Running through Beijing' by Xu Zechen (Review)

Anyone interested in literature in translation is bound to have stumbled across the name of Scott Esposito at some point.  He has his own blog, Conversational Reading, and oversees the publication of The Quarterly Conversation, an excellent online periodical.

Obviously, that's not enough to keep him busy though (even with his BTBA judging duties and the That Other Word podcast), and his work at the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco includes bringing books out with Two Lines Press, another small publisher with a focus on fiction in translation.

So when I was asked to take a look at one of the most recent publications, how could I say no? ;)

Xu Zechen's Running through Beijing (translated by Eric Abrahamsen, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is the story of Dunhuang, a petty criminal who has just been released from jail, having spent some time inside for selling fake IDs.  He's a boy from the provinces, with no real connections in Beijing, and as he walks the streets alone, buffeted by the dust storms sweeping over the city, he begins to wonder what he's going to do with himself.  It's then that he bumps into Xiaorong, a seller of fake DVDs, who allows him to stay for a while, and that's all Dunhuang needs to get back on his feet.

Dunhuang also moves into the DVD game, his chance of a second start in the big city:
"It was different now, though.  He was an old hand, calloused, nonchalant.  Anyway, selling pirated DVDs was miles closer to legality than making fake IDs.  And what was most important was his return to entrepreneurship - he was basically restarting his life in Beijing.  He reminded himself constantly that he was working for himself, and that filled him with confidence."
(Two Lines Press, 2014)
A hard-working, smooth-talking, handsome lad, Dunhuang is bound to make a go of things, and he manages to make the best of his limited opportunities.  However, in Beijing, it's always two steps forwards, one step back, especially when you're living outside the law...

Running through Beijing is an entertaining story of people trying to make ends meet in a shadowy environment.  Dunhuang is our (fake) passport to the Chinese capital, taking us from illegally-constructed shacks to hidden DVD factories, from squalid university dormitories to anonymous tower blocks.  Despite some of the setbacks the characters face, it's a fairly light-hearted story at times, with the occasional touch of pathos.

We find ourselves in a city where most people realise that the law is there merely to be circumvented.  Everyone wants fake DVDs, everyone knows that fake IDs are available, and the police are mainly trying to catch thieves in order to take a cut of the fines they impose.  Even one of Dunhuang's landladies is in on the act - when she catches him with some of his illegal films, her indignation is just an attempt to squeeze more rent money out of her (illegal) lodger.

Dunhuang is a very interesting character, one who is actually a lot more naive and innocent than he thinks (a Chinese Oliver Twist...).  A former student, he decides he needs to break the law to survive.  When he's not peddling fake goods, he's actually pretty honest, though, particularly in his support for the friend who took most of the responsibility when the two were arrested.
"He would spend his days selling DVDs to make money, of course, but he would also find some time to visit Bao Ding.  Ideally, he'd locate Qibao before that - he didn't want to disappoint Bao Ding."
Of course, when he meets Bao Ding's girlfriend - and finds her rather attractive -, his honesty is put to the test... 

The girlfriend issue aside, over the course of the novel, Dunhuang shows several signs of personal growth.  Not only does he try to keep his word to Bao Ding, he also begins to take a look at his life and make some changes.  Once immersed in the fake DVD world, he begins to develop an interest in some of the more esoteric films he's selling, devouring books on cinematic history in his spare time.  He starts jogging, buys better clothes and is a different person by the end of the story (let's change the comparison to a Chinese David Copperfield...), the final scene showing his true character.

Running through Beijing is a great look at the real, urban China, unlike some books which focus on the plight of the rural poor and oppressed.  Recently, I read Ma Jian's The Dark Road, a rather harrowing (and manipulative) novel about government repression, but Xu's book is about different people.  This is the next level up, migrants who have made it to the city, but now have to fight to make a living there, using any means available.  The story reminded me of another book on China I've read, the Comma Press collection Shi Cheng (Ten Cities) - funnily enough, guess which writer-translation duo represented Beijing in that book?  That's right, the story 'Wheels are Round' is another Xu-Abrahamsen co-production :)

The story ends as it begins, with Dunhuang running aimlessly through the streets of Beijing, highlighting his need for perpetual motion in a hostile environment.  However, he has changed, and his prospects have too, showing that while there are always ups and downs, who knows what's possible if you work at it hard enough.  As Bao Ding comments:
"A life of luxury is tough in this damned city, but you're not likely to starve either."
And that's a surprisingly optimistic tone on which to end the review - despite some of the darker scenes, Running in Beijing is a book which has a very glass-half-full view of the world:)