Friday, 30 December 2011

Another Red Future, Imagined

Probably my last book review for 2011. I not sure if I can call The Fat Years a "thriller", though. And so ends another year.

Red future
Hegemony and hope in an ascendant China

first published in The Star, 30 December 2011

With a tagline like "The notorious thriller they banned in China", a critique of China's ruling Communist Party is what you'd expect in these pages. But it's not exactly what you think.

Chan Koonchung's 'The Fat Years'
Originally published as Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 (loosely, "A Golden Age: China In 2013"), Chan Koonchung's work of speculative fiction was translated into English as The Fat Years. It starts "two years from now", ie after this novel's publication earlier this year. China has emerged ascendant from the aftermath of a global financial crisis. Some famous brands have fallen into Chinese hands, including Starbucks.

In one of the now Chinese-owned Wantwant Starbucks outlets, Old Chen, a former journalist, current author and resident of Happiness Village Number Two, is moved to tears by China's prosperity; some of those tears end up in his "great-tasting" Lychee Black Dragon Latté.

Earlier, his friend Fang Caodi pestered him for the umpteenth time about a missing February (yes, he means the month, the entire month). Big deal. Politically inconvenient timelines tend to disappear in China. That doesn't bother Old Chen – much. He's divorced, getting old and has writer's block.

Hope for his second spring in the country's golden age comes in the form of an old flame, Wei Xihong aka Little Xi. A former judge disillusioned by the system, she quit her job and eventually took the Raja Petra route (ie, she became a dissident blogger, for those who don't get the reference). Chen's search for her would put him on a course to unearth the truth behind the missing month, the details of which are only remembered very vaguely by several characters.

Born Fang Lijun, Fang Caodi is an asthmatic and jack-of-all-trades who returned to mainland China after years of wandering and renamed himself after an elementary school. Fellow asthmatic Zhang Dou, who was once a child slave, is now a wannabe guitarist. These two guys come to believe in the hand of the Chinese government behind this collective national amnesia.

Things come to a head one day when Zhang, Fang and Little Xi surprise Old Chen by pulling up to him in a black SUV with an unconscious government official bundled up at the back. Will he talk? And if he does, what will they learn?

The Fat Years describes so many things that are so close to home in modern China. Polemics for and against a totalitarian regime, its ideology and ruling elite are conveyed through the book's characters. However, it could do without the lengthy preface, which sort of gave the ending away. That and the translator's introduction pretty much summed up the novel for the casual book browser, who'd probably leave it on the shelf. Which would be a pity.

With its folksy narrative and dialogue and occasional bits of humour, The Fat Years is not stridently didactic about – nor a full-blown parody of – China's situation.

It's more about folks like Old Chen, Little Xi, Fang Caodi and Zhang Dou. Particularly Little Xi and Fang, whom the author considers among the many "incorrigible idealists" in China: "... the people languishing in prison or under government surveillance – human rights lawyers, political dissidents, ... public intellectuals, whistle-blowers...".

Despite the bad news in China (factory worker suicides, dodgy food manufacturers and callous drivers in horrifying hit-and-runs and so on), the presence of people like Little Xi and Fang gives others hope. That things aren't really all that bad, and that they will get better. That there are still people out there trying to make things better.

For me, the romance between Old Chen and Little Xi gives the book a bit of much-needed heart and gives us a glimpse of that hope. After Little Xi had gone into hiding, Old Chen tracks her down, but she refuses to see him, so they communicate through e-mails and comments in a forum thread.

Briefly, Old Chen's entreaties to Little Xi made netizens on both sides of the Taiwan Strait forget about politics to split hairs over the duo's online exchanges. Opinions differ, but they seem to agree about one thing: "Stop faffing around Little Xi, make up with Old Chen and everything will be okay!"

As the author puts it: "No society can afford to be without idealists – especially not contemporary China." After all, it can be argued that a bunch of idealists put China on the path it's treading today – and their job is far from done.

The Fat Years
Chan Koonchung
translated by Michael S Duke
preface by Julia Lovell
Doubleday (2011)
307 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-61918-9


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