The writer Han Dong is difficult to pin down and is full of surprises, Chitralekha Basu finds.
Just how many people is the writer Han Dong? Offer an idea and he usually has more than one take on it. Take the theme of urban youth being sent down to pick up life lessons from peasants living in rural China in the wake of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), for example. The cinematic detailing of condemned townsfolk building their lives from scratch in the countryside in the novel Banished is so very different in tone from the heart-tuggingly absurdist black humor in Screwed. In the latter an "educated young man" is pulled up for sodomizing the village's lone ox and thereby sabotaging production. The ruthless, and comically bizarre persecution of Xiaofei in Screwed and the meticulous recording of a momentous shift in Chinese history in Banished could have been written by two people.
The language of Han's poetry seems to have journeyed from being confounding to the pared-down and minimal, even colloquial. There are poems like Mountain People and The Wild Goose Pagoda - in which elements from the grand Chinese classical tradition are tweaked by the juxtaposition of the banal and the morbid. Then there is the middle-aged poet trying to locate himself in the context of the snazzy new entrepreneurial China, as in Night Flight and In Shenzhen, to a Group of Friends. Are these the handiwork of the same writer?
Han has often been vocal about bestseller culture - the precedence of utilitarian manuals over the literary; the foregrounding of the sensational over the introspective and meaningful, for instance. But he told us recently that commercialization of literature was not a bad thing per se, and that it brought a few benefits in its wake.
We met him in a Beijing coffee shop, between his event and book signings at the Bookworm International Literary Festival in March. He had flown in to the capital for the weekend from his hometown in Jiangsu province's capital Nanjing, where he has spent most of his life, not counting the years when he accompanied his parents to the countryside as a child of a banished cadre family.
Like his recent poems, Han was cryptic, terse and occasionally elusive, with his answers. The diminutive man with a pronounced angular jaw-line and unusually large eyes did not smile much. But he could have been smiling inside as he went about contradicting our ideas about his work, just as in his writing he keeps playing with the reader's expectations.
When I told him that the graphic reconstruction of the Tao family building their new home in Sanyu in Banished read more like copiously recorded documentation, Han Dong said the book was pure fiction.
"I did a bit of research but did not end up using most of that research," he said. "I am not a writer of realism, I'm not trying to convince you that what I write actually happened," he said.
"Informing my readers about history was never my idea," he added, slightly exasperated at having to remind people that history and fiction are meant to serve different ends.
I told him his poems, which I read in a recent Chinese-English edition, A Phone Call from Dalian (Zephyr Press, edited by Nicky Harman), reminded me of 20th-century American modernists like John Ashbery, whose meaning is as difficult to pin down as it is easy to connect with at some deep inscrutable level. I was half-expecting Han to defend his Chinese essence.
Han surprised us again by saying, "If my poems translated in English read as if they are Western in terms of sensibility, that is the desired effect. It's not necessary for the translated version to be absolutely loyal to the original. It's not so important perhaps to keep the so-called Chinese essence, it's more important to have English-speakers intuit the meaning their way. All my translators are Westerners, they are bringing their own sensibilities to my work."
Nicky Harman, who has translated an impressive list of Han's work in English, says: "Han has always said that he admires non-Chinese writers, such as Raymond Carver, Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami and Orhan Pamuk. But ultimately I think he's got a voice all of his own."
That voice shines through in some of Han's recent fiction, including the crackling new short story Brand New World, set in a dehumanizing industrial complex haunted by the specter of frustrated workers jumping to their death - that echoes a string of suicides at the Foxconn factory in Guangdong province's Shenzhen in 2010. What reads like a slice of Orwellian dystopia could, in fact, be an unsparing comment on the mendacity of a narcissistic, acquisitive society.
As indeed is Han's story, The Moron is Dead, published by Comma Press this April in Shi Cheng (Ten Cities), an anthology of 10 stories by noted Chinese writers from different cities to coincide with the London Book Fair, where the market focus is on China.
A man lies dead on a pavement in Nanjing, his face covered with a piece of cardboard on which a passerby has scrawled the words, The Moron is Dead. People pass by, lovers stop to get themselves photographed against the early spring blossoms, young boys dare each other to stand close to the corpse, a local girl and her American boyfriend turn the words into an impromptu language class.
"There is something about the defiance of language in this story," says Ra Page, who has co-edited Shi Cheng. "The text scrawled on the piece of cardboard is somehow both more meaningful to the passersby than the corpse underneath it, and simultaneously completely meaningless! There is a peculiar oddness, a pointlessness, to language when you really study it, when you put it beside something as momentous as death. Language becomes alien, and a joke."
Han is currently working on a long novel, to be published later this year. The Chinese Youth, (Zhong Guo Qing Nian), begins in the 1990s, with the main characters growing up in the same village. Cut to the present when, now in their 30s, they meet again in the big city.
"I want to write something about the present age and the great changes that have taken place in today's society," says Han. "The conflict between Chinese and Western cultures is a theme in the novel, as one of the characters returns after spending many years abroad."
His concerns about the state of Chinese literature is obvious.
"Chinese fiction is too disconnected from real life," he says. "The experience of having lived through the last three decades is enormous. No writer has been able to match up to the incredible pool of experiences that we have been through," Han says, counting himself as one of these literary failures.
"I can only represent myself, and what I write represents my opinion, my personal feeling. The idea of Chinese essence is too lofty for me to claim," he says.
"Apart from his poetry, which was ground-breaking, Han's been very influential in showing the way for independent writers of prose in Chinese," says Nicky Harman. "He's also set an example of sticking with literature. He's been writing now for over 30 years. He hasn't switched to any other, more lucrative, career."
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Wang Tingting contributed to this story.