In Censorship and Salesmanship at America’s Biggest Book Fair , Christopher beam argues that categorizing China’s community of writers into “dissidents and collaborators misses the nuances of Chinese publishing and politics”:
“People use the term ‘dissident writer’ in a very confused way,” said Eric Abrahamsen, an American translator and publishing consultant who lives in Beijing, and who drew up the initial list of Chinese authors to invite to B.E.A. Chinese writers don’t go to jail for writing novels, he said: “If that was happening in China, Sheng Keyi [盛可以] would be in jail. Yan Lianke [阎连科] would be in jail. And not only are they not in jail, they’re part of the system. They’re part of the Writers Association. They’re drawing a stipend from the government. They’re getting literary prizes. They have difficulties — sometimes they have trouble publishing, sometimes they don’t win prizes they would have otherwise — but their feet are on the streets.” Dissidents like Woeser [唯色], Tohti [伊力哈木·土赫提], and Liu Xiaobo [刘小波], he added, are jailed for their political activities, not their creative writing. “People talk about Liu Xiaobo as a poet,” he said. “But he’s not a very good poet, and he’s not in jail because of his poetry. He’s in jail because of his political commentary on Charter 08.”
Original Chinese novel: 《裸命》
English title: The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver
Author: Chan Koonchung (陈冠中)
Translator: Nicky Harman
Reviewer: Bruce Humes
“Dreams are so good. Why do we have to make them a reality? ”
What’s a young Tibetan stud to do for a living nowadays in a tourist hotspot like Lhasa? And what happens when his childhood dream—to hang out in the capital of a country called China—comes true?
In the just-published Champa the Driver, author Chan Koonchung takes us on a rocky road from Lhasa to Beijing.
Along the way he paints disturbing vignettes. An apartheid-in-the-making. The eerie death wish of a would-be self-immolator. The Kafkaesque “black jails” where provincial petitioners who dare air their grievances to the Beijing Mandarins are brutalized, then sent home.
If they’re lucky, that is.
I read both the Chinese original and Nicky Harman’s translation, and her rendition convincingly captures Champa’s conflicted mindset and odd lingo; after all, like any young PRC citizen he is the product of 21st-century China’s booming economy and rampant materialism. But he is also not a native speaker of Chinese, and deep down, he is more Tibetan and Buddhist than he realizes. Even as Chan evokes the gap between image and reality, between the tourist’s Lhasa and Tibet under the heel of the dragon, and Beijing as it is dreamt vs. lived, the novel remains a quick and compelling read.
At the outset, Champa is sitting pretty. He’s got a cushy job in Lhasa as a chauffeur for Plum, a savvy Han businesswoman with a robust appetite for the occasional “spurt of the moment” (as Champa puts it), and before he knows it, he’s her lover-on-demand. However the simple days of cock-and-cunt—there’s a hefty dose of raw sex as the novel opens—are soon overshadowed by the troubling loss of his Tibetan virility. After an-all-too-short trip to Beijing, he realizes that she doesn’t want to be seen parading her “Tibetan Mastiff puppy” in the capital.
This is a body blow to his self-image, and impacts their relations back home in Lhasa. “Plum just didn’t get my tantric juices flowing” any more, he admits. To do his night gig with the boss now, he has to spend his daytime headhunting a fresh new sex object—in a whorehouse, online, among tourists, whatever—that he can visualize while servicing Plum.