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IN BRIEF

FICTION : BLACK SNOW by Liu Heng, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Atlantic Monthly Press: $20; 272 pp.)

April 11, 1993

Things have changed in China, this novel seems to say, though the same old men remain in power. Li Huiquan, its anti-hero, is an ex-convict, but he served time for street fighting, not for dissidence. In the year after his release, as he scratches out a living in Beijing as a pushcart vendor and falls in love with a night-club singer, he pays no attention to politics. He is, in fact, what any French existentialist or American city dweller would recognize immediately: a rootless, alienated individual, a Lonely Man in the Crowd.

Liu Heng ("Ju Dou") emphasizes Li's plight by making him an orphan: In a Confucian society, he has no ancestors. He was a baby found in a ditch at a construction project. He looks as if his parents came from a different part of the country. He has tried to fit in by being loyal to friends and by losing himself in the intoxication of gang warfare (where he earned the nickname "Basher Li"). But now his friends take advantage of him or simply leave him behind; he is under police surveillance and, at 25, has lost his taste for violence.

This novel might well be titled "Frustration." Li endlessly ponders the meaning of his life. He hopes to make money but backs out of the chance to become seriously involved in the black market. He discovers that he can express himself through writing but does little with the discovery. Moving in an underworld where Western goods such as porn videos are available, he is tormented by sexual fantasies--another departure from the blue-padded-jacket school of Chinese literature that prevailed not long ago--but remains a virgin, a stage-door admirer of the singer. Liu's gritty prose--though translations of slang are never satisfactory--captures the harsh texture of his days.

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