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NEW CHINESE WRITING : The Young and the Restless

September 05, 1993|HOWARD GOLDBLATT | Howard Goldblatt is a Chinese scholar who has translated Mo Yan and Liu Heng

In the title essay of "Imaginary Homelands" Salman Rushdie describes the novel as "one way of denying the official, politicians' version of the truth." In China this is a relatively new role for the novel, which all too often in recent decades has articulated and promoted the "official truth." But times and circumstances change and readers in China and the West are getting a new look at life in the People's Republic from those who have the greatest stake in it.

A new generation of novelists has begun to describe in graphic, revealing prose a place where surface stability uneasily masks a society in turmoil. These writers, generally in their 30s, are gaining unprecedented notoriety and acceptance in the West--if not always in their own country, where some of their work does not see the light of day until it is first published in Taiwan or Hong Kong, sometimes even in foreign translation.

In post-Mao China the generational transition process has accelerated to the point where novelists and poets are sometimes out of favor with a fickle and volatile readership within months of being lionized as the latest literary superstars. But in the wake of Tian An Men, an artistic and philosophical rupture of unprecedented significance has occurred. No longer interested in being viewed as state-supported "literary workers," these new writers, iconoclasts to a startling degree, have claimed their independence from the literary Establishment, publishing abroad to escape ideological and financial pressures as they confidently assert their artistic freedom.

While stretching the limits of taste in their writing, they simultaneously demonstrate a heightened interest in China's past. For them history is neither circular nor linear, but random and shifting, until the boundaries between past and present are blurred into obscurity. By denying history its traditional authority, they raise fundamental questions about contemporary life, politics and values. Visions of the future, as a result, run from murky to apocalyptic. Unthinkable acts and concepts--from sexual perversion to cannibalism--have become the trademarks of the most conspicuous writers. Historical fiction, once a refuge for writers intent on criticizing specific politics or ideologies, has now become a vast showcase of human nature at its most depraved. Additionally, the more daring among these writers are creating dialogues with their own texts and with their readers that challenge and subvert the very way we approach and interpret fiction.

Not all the young novelists retreat into China's past for their themes and settings. Wang Shuo, by far the most frequently "featured" and talked-about writer of his generation (though not yet translated into English), has already captured a large urban readership in his own country, and now hopes to win the West with irreverent tales of hedonistic life among China's restless, often aimless, urban youth--his vaunted "hooligan" literature. Whether the Wang Shuo fad--and I suspect that's pretty much what it is--carries over into the outside world or not, Wang, more than any of his peers, has staked out territory independent of societal and political pressures. Straying into a sort of "punk-cool" patois and sexy, often comic, contemporary settings, Wang neatly reflects the lives of his city-dwelling contemporaries in novels as well as in the soap-opera scripts for which he has become best known in China. He is a good, often innovative, read, if not always a profound one.

Mo Yan, on the other hand, does not seek to entertain. He is attempting to rewrite the history of 20th-Century China by creating new forms of chronological narration and new approaches to an understanding of the nature and function of memory in a series of big novels beginning with "Red Sorghum" (published here this year by Viking). A disturbing but immensely satisfying tale of three generations of northern peasants who are constantly at war with outside invaders, feudal traditions and each other, it is being read by some as a metaphor for China's fate, a view that is only partially visible in the movie adaptation. Mo's latest novel (after "Song of Garlic in Paradise County," which Viking will bring out here next year) is an ambitious mixture of narrative styles that focuses in part on a fictional locale where children are raised as food for officials whose jaded tastes are mocked unmercifully; it also explores the act of writing itself in a series of intriguing dialogues with the author's alter ego.

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