At Public Books Eric Hayot writes about the presentation of China in literature available to readers of English, by way of a review of Gail Tsukiyama’s A Hundred Flowers, Christopher Buckley’s They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, Dung Kai-cheung’s 董啟章 Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City (translated by the author with Bonnie McDougall and Anders Hansson), and Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke 阎连科 (translated by Carlos Rojas). Here’s how Hayot frames his discussion:
… these four novels—two satires, one melodrama, and one modernist pseudo-documentary—might all be grasped as part of the contemporary social call to understand China, to see it clearly, to name or frame it, to place it in relation to local or global politics, or to locate it inside recent or universal world history. In the last decade economic historians like Ban Wang and Kenneth Pomeranz have demonstrated that the Chinese economy dominated the planet from about 500 to 1500 CE, creating the world’s first global economic system. The possibility of China’s return to that position of dominance—and here I ask all readers to call up a mental image of a sleeping dragon awakening—is what has folks on both sides of the Pacific trembling, in fear or glee, for the “Chinese century” to succeed the American one. “China” is thus one of the names of the global future as we imagine it.
China is also, therefore, an intellectual and social problem, for everyone. What is China to us today—assuming the “us” includes (and how could it not?) the wide variety of people who think of themselves as “Chinese”? What kind of place is it? What must we know to comprehend its nature (if it has one)? What would it mean to recognize ourselves (again, the first person plural includes the Chinese) as people who want to know what China is, and who are willing to work hard, as authors and as readers, to understand it? How will such an understanding return us, like fiction, to a new vision of the world we have known until now?
The overlapping world of literary critics and cultural commentators is still arguing about Mo Yan 莫言 and his Nobel Prize. Nobel Literature Laureate from 2009, Romanian-raised Herta Müller calls Mo Yan’s win “a catastrophe” because he “celebrates censorship.” And Anna Sun of the Kenyon Review calls Mo Yan’s writing “diseased“; as for the “shimmering poetry and brutal realism” of his writing as advertised? Sun says “only the ‘brutal realism’ is Mo Yan’s; the ‘shimmering poetry’ comes from a brilliant translator’s work.”
As for the translator, Howard Goldblatt’s “Memory, Speak” is online at Chinese Literature Today. Chinese Literature Today co-founder Jonathan Stalling responds to criticism of Mo Yan with “Mo Yan and the Technicians of Culture.” And an audio interview with Mo Yan has been posted at Granta.
For all the different styles of play in different countries and continents, football is a game whose rules can be universally applied. North Korea plays Mexico with a Swedish referee and despite one or two contested offside decisions a result is recorded and one team can pass to the next round without too much discussion. But can we feel so certain when the Swedish referee judges poems from those two countries that he will pick the right winner? Or even that there is a “right” winner? Or even a competition? The Mexican did not write his or her poems with the idea of getting a winning decision over the North Korean, or with a Swedish referee in mind. At least we hope not.
If you’re a poet outside the Anglophone world, and you manage to win the Nobel Prize, two things are likely to happen. First, your ascendancy will be questioned by fiction critics in a major English-language news publication. Second, there will be a fair amount of pushing and shoving among your translators (if you have any), as publishers attempt to capitalize on your 15 minutes of free media attention.
So begins David Orr‘s essay “Versions,” about the translations of last year’s Nobel laureate for literature Tomas Tranströmer. Maybe one day in the future Xi Chuan will win the Nobel prize, and we’ll be able to test this hypothesis (or test it with the last two Nobel Prize-winning poets from outside English, Wisława Szymborska  and Octavio Paz ); at any event, the article gives an interesting take on a worthwhile debate. I’ll come down on the side of Robin Fulton in this debate–not just that we share a publisher, but that I believe New Directions to have picked the right translator for the task.
[Fulton has also published a book of translations of the Norwegian poet Olav Hauge, whom Xi Chuan has also co-translated into Chinese; for a discussion of Xi Chuan’s translations, click here.]
I have referred a couple of times (here and here) to Xi Chuan’s poetics of the oxymoron, and how it’s related to current Chinese realities, so I thought I would link to an essay where he begins verbalizing such formulations. Xi Chuan wrote “In the Shadow of the Oxymoron” in English for the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program for the Home / Land Symposium on the island of Paros, Greece, in May 2008. Here’s an excerpt:
Some thirty years ago, people in China said “left is right and right is wrong.” Now, to live in the shadow of oxymoron means therefore to live with embarrassment; it means to enjoy a happiness that is absurd.
But to speak in oxymorons means that you are a person who is not going to be understood. I am not using a term like “contradiction” because contradictions are yet to be blended, whereas the social oxymoron is now a reality. Yes I do know concepts such as freedom, justice, love, privacy, equality, democracy, literacy, elite, etc.—but these quasi-saturated concepts are stronger and more popular. The reason why things are going like this is probably the result of an overdone revolution meeting a half-done modernization.
My copies of Yours Truly & Other Poems, the Tinfish Press chapbook of six of my translations of recent Xi Chuan pieces, just arrived in the mail today. Here are the contents: “Unusual” 反常, “I Bury My Tail” 我藏着我的尾巴, “The Neighbors” 邻居, “Somebody” 某人, “The Plains” 平原, and “Yours Truly” 小老儿. Here’s how it looks: (click on the images to order yours for only $3.00 in greenbacks!)