The surprise announcement that Chinese novelist Mo Yan had won the Nobel Prize in literature has focused unprecedented global attention on Chinese literature. 'Tao Te-Ching' and 'Art of War' notwithstanding, books from the world's most populous country have tended to get meager play in the Western press. Luckily, that hasn't kept publishers from commissioning translations of some of China's best-loved works.
But with dozens of titles to choose from, where should the intrepid reader start?
To answer that question, China Real Time turned to the editors of Pathlight, a literary magazine dedicated to translating new Chinese fiction and poetry jointly produced by the translation website Paper Republic and People's Literature Magazine. Below, Pathlight staff recommend four of their favorite Chinese books in translation, starting with one from the Nobel winner:
'Garlic Ballads' by Mo Yan
Readers who want to get a taste of Mo Yan before they commit to reading a whole book may want to pick up 'Shifu, You'll Do Anything for a Laugh!, ' a collection of Mo's short stories, or check out Zhang Yimou's film version of the novel 'Red Sorghum.' For those who want to read a full-length novel, the Nobel committee's recommendation of ' The Garlic Ballads' as a first Mo Yan novel is a good place to start.
'The Garlic Ballads' opens with a quote attributed to Stalin – though Mo admitted to making it up in the preface to the second edition of the novel – that takes on new resonance in the light of recent criticisms of Mo for not being more outspoken in his support of imprisoned fellow Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and other politically active writers.
Novelists are forever trying to distance themselves from politics, but the novel itself closes in on politics. Novelists are so concerned with 'man's fate' that they tend to lose sight of their own fate. Therein lies their tragedy.
'The Garlic Ballads' has as its backdrop the story – based on real events in 1987 – of poor farmers who storm the county government offices in protest over extortionate taxes, tolls, and fees after their garlic crops, planted at the urging of the local government, rot, unsold, in the fields. The novel begins with the arrest and beating of Gao Yang, one of the leaders of the protest, in front of his blind daughter, then cuts to the doomed lovers Gao Ma and Fang Jinju as they attempt to resist Jinju's betrothal to an older man in an illegal arranged marriage.
Like many of Mo's longer novels, 'The Garlic Ballads' combines gritty realism with surreal imagery, depicts the venal cruelty of official power, and presents personal tragedy in the context of the long, slow-motion tragedy of history.
'Dream of Ding Village' by Yan Lianke
Although a work of fiction, ' Dream of Ding Village' is based on the very real 'blood boom,' a phenomenon of the last 20 years that has led to the spread of HIV among Chinese villagers because of the selling of contaminated blood. Yan Lianke zooms in on individual stories such as the ex-mayor of Ding Village, cajoled into selling blood by blood merchant Ding Hui, even as his energy for his job toiling the fields wanes by the moment.
Though Yan writes emotions as if they're one shade and paints death and suffering with large brush-strokes, 'Dream of Ding Village' is an extremely readable tale with observations in Yan's famous satirical style. He's positively effusive on the absurdities of modern rural China and the novel is resplendent in details such as peasants, who have probably never set foot outside of Ding Village, being buried in coffins carved with scenes 'depicting famous landmarks: Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Shanghai Oriental Pearl television tower, Guangzhou's high-rise hotels, and various bustling commercial districts, department stores, suspension bridges, fountains, parks and public squares.'
Yan's homage is the more touching as the HIV/AIDS crisis has affected mostly those from his birth province of Henan. The brutal story is smoothly translated by Cindy Carter, whose rendering is practiced, always to the point, and poetic at times. (Full disclosure: Ms. Carter is a co-founder of Paper Republic.)
'A Dictionary of Maqiao' by Han Shaogong
A welcome relief from the overripe camp of much contemporary Chinese literature, ' A Dictionary of Maqiao' is a tightly written, gnomic work that packs epic historical sweep into a series of dense vignettes. Disguised as a 'dictionary' of the dialect of Maqiao, a small village in Hunan, the novel defines 115 local terms such as 'Curse-Grinding,' 'He-Ground,' 'Nailed Backs' and 'Streetsickness,' expanding from a mere compendium of definitions into a patchwork tale of bizarre power. Though the story and its setting are familiar from other Chinese fiction – an 'educated youth' is sent down to a village during the Cultural Revolution – the author's narrative choices make that whole world feel new.
That's the appeal of the book in a nutshell. Plenty of Chinese novels claim to be heir to the magical-realist tradition, but 'A Dictionary of Maqiao' does it right: Presenting the known world as a foreign land, promising to guide the reader through it and teach him its ways, but only deepening the mystery with each patient, detailed definition.
'To Live' by Yu Hua
Even if you've seen Zhang Yimou's film adaptation of Yu Hua's 'To Live,' that is no excuse to pass up this fantastic 1993 novel. Both the film and the novel are authentically Yu Hua, owing to the writer's intimate involvement in the screenplay, but the novel is significantly darker: In the up-and-down life of the protagonist, a wealthy-scion-turned-peasant named Fugui, the scales lean increasingly toward the downs.
Despite its tragic strains, 'To Live' manages to redeem itself from the 'rural misery' stereotype that plagues many modern Chinese epics. As we follow the shifting fortunes of Fugui and his family through the capricious evolution of 20 century Chinese politics, from the Republican to the Communist period, the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, what emerges is a meditation on the nature of suffering itself, and the considerable resources the human spirit employs to lessen its sting.
The result is not a simple accumulation of misery, but rather a clear-eyed attempt to come to grips with the fact of misery, fortified by the sublime assertion that this unflinching attempt is in itself worthwhile. In this sense, the satisfaction of reading 'To Live' is comparable to that of reading existential philosophy – just watch out for the cathartic punches. They could knock you flat, as they did to me when I burst into tears while reading this book on a road trip, leaving my travelling companions perplexed. None of them knew the name Yu Hua. All I could do was point to the book in my hands, and say, 'It's China, man.'