6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Braised Pork’ to ‘Hotel Iris’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first Saturday of the month means it is time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

I didn’t take part last month because August crept up on me unawares, but here is my effort for September. See if you can spot a theme!

This month the starting book is the last one read in August…I’m kind of cheating here because I’m starting with the last one I reviewed in August as I’m about 6 books behind. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book…

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu (2020)

In this intriguing novel, a young Chinese woman living in Beijing is widowed suddenly and begins a journey of self-discovery, which includes a trip to Tibet, a romance with a local bar owner and a rediscovery of her artistic side. The prose style is simple and hypnotic and the story blends folklore and mythic elements to create a rather enigmatic, sometimes perplexing, tale.

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

Another novel set in Beijing, this 600-plus extravaganza is a powerful story that bears witness to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. t is a deeply moving account of the student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work, but in Ma Jian’s hands, this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective. (The book is banned in China and the writer is living in exile in the UK.)

‘The Man from Beijing’ by Hanning Mankell (2011)

The obvious link here is in the title, but I’m also linking to it because it is about a massacre. It’s a stand-alone crime novel (ie. not part of Mankell’s famous Wallender detective series) that follows an investigation into Sweden’s biggest (fictional) mass murder in which 19 people are slaughtered overnight in a sleepy village in the middle of winter. It’s not a police procedural as such because the crime is investigated by a middle-aged judge who has been signed off from work and needs something to occupy her time. Structurally, the book has some issues — the story, for instance, jumps back to the mid-19th century just as the investigation is hotting up, which interrupts the page-turning quality of the tale — but it’s an intriguing look at modern-day China’s hidden influence on the world and Mankell is not shy about wearing his politics on his sleeve, so to speak.

‘The Aosowa Murders’ by Riku Ondo (2020)

Sorry about the dark turn, but here’s another novel that features a mass murder as its starting point. In this unconventional crime novel from Japan, the focal point is the death of 17 people who are deliberately poisoned at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The novel is not really a whodunnit or a whydunnit. Instead, it looks at the far-reaching impact of the crime on the lives of so many people, including the police investigators, and it’s written retrospectively using multiple voices and multiple time-frames with no neat solution or ending.

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino (2018) 

Conventional structure is thrown out the window in this Japanese crime novel, too. Higashino is my favourite Japanese crime writer but this one was a little disappointing. it is set in Tokyo and follows the police investigation into the death of a 40-year-old woman. Each phase of the investigation is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer. Eventually, Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman, reveals the identity of the culprit, but it takes a long time to get there!

‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2013)

Staying in Tokyo, but leaving the crime behind, this is a bittersweet tale about a 30-something woman who embarks on a relationship with an older man who was once her teacher at school. It’s an unconventional love story because the pair never make dates; they simply go to the same bar at around the same time, sit next to each other and spend the evening drinking and talking. Their relationship, which grows from friendship into love, unfolds as gently as the narrative, which is written in stripped-back, often elegiac, prose.

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011) 

Another story about a relationship between a younger woman and an older man, this novel takes a horrifying subject — a sexual deviant praying on an innocent girl — but writes about it beautifully. The prose is lush and hypnotic and the narrative is perfectly restrained, and yet it brims with tension. Will 17-year-old Mari be okay or will her boyfriend, who is 50 years her senior, turn out to be the next Ted Bundy?

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about a young Chinese widower on the brink of a new life to the tale of a Japanese teenager playing with fire, via stories set in Beijing and Tokyo, most of them using unconventional structures to keep things interesting. 

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Ma Jian, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

Red-dust

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 336 pages; 2010. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

I’m not a huge fan of travelogues, but I decided to read Red Dust based on the strength of Ma Jian’s superb novel Beijing Coma and Max Cairnduff’s excellent review.

I read it on my Kindle while in China last month, and found much of Jian’s descriptions, particularly of places I had been such as the ancient city of Xi’an and the Ghost City of Fengdu, very authentic.

The book chronicles Jian’s travels throughout China during the 1980s, a time in which travel for the average Chinese citizen was banned without the necessary paperwork.

He claims to go travelling because: “I want to see my country, every river, every mountain. I want to see different people, different lives. […] I just want to know it, see it with my own eyes.” But that is the sanitised version.

Before he hit the road, Jian was an official photographer for the propaganda department of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. He spent most of his free time as an artist. His house, a “crumbling old shack”, in Beijing was used by fellow creatives — writers, painters, poets and dissidents — as a secret meeting point.

He was labelled as a “questionable youth” by his bosses, who believed his “spare time activities” indicated he had been poisoned by “bourgeois Spiritual Pollution”. He escaped the clutches of Party Officials waging their Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution by forging his own travel documents and heading for the desert. (Just as well, because within a matter of years more than a million people were arrested and nearly 200,000 executed as part of the Campaign.)

It was 1983 and he was 30 years old. He had hoped to find spiritual enlightenment along the way, but as most travellers are wont to discover, Jian ended up learning a great deal about his country — good, bad and ugly — and the people who lived in it.

He was on the move for three years before he decided to return to Beijing.

Initially he revels in the freedom that travel provided:

Men are like swallows, when autumn arrives they long to fly away. Life moves with the same rhythm as the sky and the earth. It changes as sun changes into moon and day into night. If they told me to return to Beijing now, I would charge straight into those ramparts.  I would rather crack my skull and die than go back to moulder in that dank city.

But later, after some close encounters and a constant struggle to earn enough cash to get by, he realises that freedom is not the be all and end all. “Walking through the wilds freed me from worries and fears, but this is not real freedom,” he wrote. “You need money to be free.”

While I found Red Dust an easy read and enjoyed discovering more about China through Jian’s eyes, I did have some problems with the book.

The first — which can be dismissed as my own fault, rather than the author’s — was Jian’s narrative voice. I simply did not like it, because it often came across as arrogant and sexist (not dissimilar, in fact, to his fictional Dai Wei in Beijing Coma).

The second is simply the repetition of Jian arriving in a new place (usually broke and worried that the authorities will discover his papers are illegal), befriending someone, finding out about the local culture and then leaving. Once or twice is interesting, but when the bulk of the narrative is just relating a succession of these encounters, as different as each may be, it does become wearing. (Max Cairnduff’s review also finds this a major failing.)

Of course, that’s not enough to dismiss the book completely. There’s a lot in Red Dust which provides food for thought, particularly as it is set just as China’s economy was beginning to open up thanks to Deng Xiaoping‘s reforms. Jian thought that this would help his people, until he meets many rural folk who tell him otherwise. One chap says:

“A free economy won’t make bicycles or sewing machines grow from the earth. […] All the young men have left to find work in the cities. They come back at Spring Festival with new watches and big bags of clothes.”

I’d love to know how opinions and attitudes have changed in the 25 years since Jian went on his travels, but sadly Jian will never be able to retrace his steps to find out. He’s no longer welcome in his homeland and has been resident in London since 1999. His books are banned in China.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2010

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again when everyone shares their best reads of 2010.

I’ve read so many wonderful books this year that I’ve narrowed it down by only including novels, as opposed to novellas or non-fiction titles.

Here’s my list (in alphabetical order by book title — click on the book’s title to see my review in full:

 

 

Beijing Coma

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

At more than 600-pages long, it requires a major commitment from the reader, but it is worth the effort. It is a deeply moving account of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work. But in Ma Jian’s hands this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective.

The-Canal

‘The Canal’ by Lee Rourke (2010)

The Canal might be a book about boredom, but there’s little or no risk of evoking that emotional state in the reader. This is a novel pulsing with ideas and theories (and lots of facts about London, if you’re that way inclined), and one that’s likely to tell you more about the human condition than any textbook possibly could.

Of-a-Boy

‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett (2003)

The real strength of this story, which is written in plain, languid prose, is Hartnett’s uncanny ability to get inside the head of a lonely school boy. She underplays everything, so it is you the reader who comes to understand the pain of his existence.

Room

‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue (2010)

The novel, which is Donoghue’s seventh, is an extraordinarily atmospheric read. I use the term ‘atmospheric’ to describe the feelings it evokes in the reader and the ways in which those feelings linger for days afterwards. I found myself not so much reeling in its wake but feeling as if something had shifted inside of me, so that I could no longer perceive the world in the same way.

A-Short-Gentleman

‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter (2009)

I think the funniest thing about the book (and admittedly the first half is more hilarious than the second half) is the way in which it pokes fun at Britain’s upper-classes. Their eccentricities, the ways in which they run their households and conduct their lives all come in for more than their fair share of ribbing.

Skin-lane

‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett (2008)

I have not read anything quite as haunting as this strangely beautiful book. It’s a novel that is full of contradictions: it brims with sexual tension, and yet contains no sex; it is filled with death, and yet no one is murdered; it’s repetitious to the point of being dull, and yet features some of the most exciting and heart-hammering scenes you will ever read.

The Slap

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas (2009)

The Slap is by no means a perfect novel — sometimes the writing feels forced, especially when sketching in the back story for individual characters, and I suspect the numerous music references are going to date it quickly — but its ambition, its scope and the sheer force of the story-telling more than makes up for this. It’s a very bold book, full of sex, drugs, middle-aged angst and a lot of crude language.

So-much-for-that

‘So Much For That’ by Lionel Shriver (2010)

I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book. I lived with these characters for an entire weekend (the book arrived on a Saturday morning and by the Sunday night I had finished it) and felt like I’d gone on a huge, emotional roller-coaster that lasted almost 48 hours. It made me laugh, it made me cry and it made me angry.

This-human-season

‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean (2006)

What I admire most about this book is Dean’s clear-eyed ability to reveal the human angle of The Troubles rather than concentrate on the politics of the situation. She never glorifies the violence or takes sides. Perhaps her own background — she is English, middle-class and lives in France — has helped her look at events with an outsider’s cool objectivity.

This-is-how

‘This is How’ by MJ Hyland (2010)

This Is How is far from a cheery read. Despite the loathsome character at its heart, it’s strangely compelling. It’s dark, disturbing and filled with pathos, but it is exactly this kind of exploration of a fragile mind that everyone should read, not because it offers condemnation, but because it does the opposite: illuminates and educates.

Have you read any from this list? Care to share your own top 10?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Fiction, literary fiction, Ma Jian, Vintage

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian

Beijing-Coma

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 666 pages; 2009. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

It’s been a very long time since I read a novel that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma is by no means a perfect book — it’s far too lengthy for a start and the lead character is arrogant and annoying by turns — but it is a powerful, compelling read, a story that bears witness to a shocking event that the Chinese authorities would rather you did not know about: the Tianamen Square massacre of 1989.

Although the book is fictional, it is based on first-hand experience and, from what I can gather having now read this wikipedia entry, is historically accurate. Only the names have been changed.

Beijing Coma remains banned in China, along with everything else that Ma Jian has written. (He now lives in London with his translator wife, Flora Drew.)

At more than 600-pages long, it requires a major commitment from the reader, but it is worth the effort. It is a deeply moving account of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work. But in Ma Jian’s hands this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective.

As Dai Wei lays in a bed in his mother’s apartment waiting to die — he was felled by a bullet during the military crackdown — he takes in everything happening around him. Much of the time he reminisces about his past, and through this we learn of his childhood growing up in 1980s Communist China, where his father was labelled a “rightist” and sentenced to 20 years in a prison farm, and his mother was a fine, upstanding citizen who toed the Party line.

Later, he escapes the claustrophobia of the family home to attend university, where he spends more time chasing girls than studying. He eventually gets swept up in the idealism of the pro-democracy movement and finds himself head of security during the protests which begin in April 1989.

He recalls the student movement’s slow disintegration, as boisterous enthusiasm and idealism makes way for in-fighting, internal power struggles and corruption all because it lacked a truly united front.

But Dai Wei’s memories of the past are constantly interrupted by events happening around him in his mother’s cramped and shabby apartment. Because he was injured during a massacre that the Government denies ever happened, he is not allowed medical treatment. It is up to his mother, as sole carer, to do what she can to help him: she gets drugs and IV equipment on the black market, and occasionally has documents forged to allow him to be treated in hospital. It is a perilous, on-the-edge and inhumane existence for both parties.

His mother is anxious for her son to die to relieve her of this terrible burden — and she makes no bones about telling him this, not knowing that despite Dai Wei’s vegetative state he can hear everything she says.

At times the narrative feels like a dark comedy (there’s one instance when Dai Wei’s urine is seen as a miracle cure and people come from far and wide to buy it from his mother’s apartment), but for the most part it is a damning indictment of China’s human rights record.

It is also a fascinating insight into the massive economic and physical changes that Beijing underwent between 1989 and the 2008 Olympic Games, as old buildings were torn down to make way for modern ones, and local residents took advantage of new investment.

But for Dai Wei’s mother this change is not welcome. As she juggles her son’s medical needs with her own struggle to survive, she is ordered by the Government to leave her apartment so that it can be demolished to make way for new buildings as part of the Beijing Olympic bid. Her refusal to move, to succumb to the Government’s demands, not only shows how much her attitude to the Government has changed (she was once a model Communist citizen), it provides a glimpse of a country thundering ahead so fast that only the fittest, strongest and most adaptable can survive.

These dual narratives are interleaved in a seamless fashion, so that only the tense — past for Dei Wei’s memories, present for events happening around his sick bed — orientates the reader.

A word of caution, however: the level of detail in this novel may be off-putting to some, because Ma Jian records the minutiae of student life and every tiny step of the protest movement. I admit that I did, at times, wonder if it was worth me ploughing ahead. I’m pleased that I persisted, because the sheer weight of the information presented builds momentum. By the time you reach the horrifying climax — the tanks rolling in and the soldiers mowing down innocent bystanders — it’s like being hit over the head by a tonne of bricks, as the full force of all that detail rains down on you. It is, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic endings to a novel I’ve ever read.

Beijing Coma held my attention for an entire month. It is a brave and audacious book, brimming with idealism, chaos and horror. If you like your fiction rooted in fact, with a choppy, fast-paced narrative, and a conclusion that leaves you reeling, then do add this one to the list.