In the Gutter, Looking at the Stars6 min read

Harvey Thomlinson reviews Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa


Among the middle-class denizens of the literary city, outsiders like Jia Pingwa often feel a responsibility to inscribe their own people within its walls. Some such sense seems to have informed Happy Dreams, which follows poor laborer Happy Liu from Freshwind – a Shaanxi village like the one where Jia grew up – to the provincial capital of Xi’an, where Jia now lives as a successful author, his international reputation currently cresting.

The novel persuasively sketches the continuities that bind city and countryside in modern China as Happy and his friend Wufu are received by their mercurial fellow villager Gem Han, who has made it big as one of Xi’an’s four kings of trash. They are assigned a patch of Prosper Street to pick trash, and lodgings at Leftover House, in a muddy urban village where migrants survive amid squalor. Jia Pingwa’s perceptiveness shines through in startling details about the bare boards the poor sleep on, the stale food they eat, the hurtful contempt they suffer. The descriptions of maggoty toilets will stick in some readers’ throats like the moldy bread that Happy and Wufu subsist on.

One nice detail is the revelation that Happy and Wufu often don’t know the time. Although physically present in Xi’an, they usually still adhere to “vertical time” and the rural way of thinking. After an acquaintance makes fun of Freshwind superstitions, Happy reflects, “What did he know of blue flames that suddenly leap out of the fire … or how the owls hoot every night for a couple of weeks before someone dies in Freshwind?”

The author’s concern to keep it real has resulted in a story that sometimes seems incompletely alchemized by form, as if he was unwilling to transmute his raw material. Happy’s relationship with working girl Meng Yichun, for example, provides some of the novel’s most touching moments, but is abruptly interrupted when Meng is arrested. We never hear of her again.

As with 18th century laboring-class poets such as Robert Tatersal, Jia is juggling his literary ambitions with his status as a representative of his class. His concern for faithfulness impels him on research trips to the lives of the poor, on which he is often accompanied by voyeuristic fellow literati. The problem may be that successful novelists like Jia – who is also an official in the Party-controlled China Writers Association – could feel set apart from their origins by virtue of their education, their eloquence, their connections.

In search of an authentic voice to tell this story, the tormented author abandoned several drafts of the book, before fixing on Happy Liu, based on a village friend, as his “prism.” The fictional Happy is a singular figure who, despite the extreme hardships he and his friends experience, maintains what appears to be a near-delusional conviction that he will succeed. Where others see a “sparrow,” we are told, Happy sees a “phoenix.” Without the ameliorating balm of this sympathetic dreamer’s stream of consciousness, the novel’s accumulation of misfortune might have been unpalatably grim. As Happy says, “The more cramped your surroundings, the more you should imagine stuff.”

Other writers have finessed literary sensibility by making such characters a version of themselves. By choosing a limited narrator, Jia has given us a book authentically but claustrophobically focused on day-to-day concerns, in which wider musings of a spiritual or political nature rarely intrude. The plain language is a part of this strategy. Only rarely is the illusion broken, but the register of phrases like “I felt that newspaper article dignified me” and “Petty-bourgeoisie was the woman’s middle name” would be a smoother fit in the interior monologue of a professional writer than a trash picker. More broadly, the narrative compulsion and remorseless linear fluency of Happy’s inner voice jars with the discontinuities of his life as an urban migrant.

Fortunately, in Nicky Harman this text has found one of the most resourceful of literary translators. On this occasion she rummages profitably through the midden heap of language for recyclable treasures. Her finder’s flair serves up delectability such as “the city was one great maw, slurping every drop of oil from the soup bowl,” while her sound ear for spoken dialogue delivers what we readily believe is a plausible mimesis of Freshwind dialect, “those scolding tones … so familiar, and so warm.”

Jia’s unsentimental humor, allied to Harman’s humble mastery, sweeps readers forward from the tremendous opening turn of Happy’s discovery at Xi’an station illegally bearing Wufu’s corpse, then back through Happy and Wufu’s progress to this moment. Their adventures abound with memorable scenes, such as Happy and Wufu treating fevers by bleeding each other between the eyes with pottery shards.

Jia effectively uses Happy’s life to illustrate the prejudice of town people toward rural migrants. Despite their essential role, they are an afterthought. As Happy himself observes, “The city never considered our needs.” Configured by the city’s gaze as “performing monkeys,” Happy movingly asserts their moral equality: “We’re not less intelligent than them, we’ve just seen less.”

It is perhaps unkind to reflect that without Happy’s optimism the book’s intrinsically dark social vision might have packed a much harder punch, something more like Lao She’s 1930s novel Camel Xiangzi.  Optimistic Happy is perceptive enough to be aware of social injustice, and may kick against the pricks, but is unlikely to rebel in a major way. Happy’s quiescence in the face of inequality is summarized by his advice to Wufu: “There’s no use complaining. It only makes it more difficult to have a good life here. … If a shiny car stops in front of you and people get out, dressed to the nines, you have to admire their shiny car, admire the way they shake hands and nod and smile.”

The great strength of this novel, however, lies in its assured treatment of the fondly fractious relationship between Happy and Wufu. “Human relationships are not about the big things, they are about the details,” muses Happy, and this could be taken as a manifesto for Jia Pingwa’s fiction. This oddball couple are touching and funny, as Happy takes Wufu under his wing, lectures him on table manners and acts as his guardian, and ultimately his pall-bearer.

In the end, this deeply humanistic novel’s flaws and strengths both come from the same burden of Jia Pingwa’s concern to give literary representation to not only the current generation of Xi’an trash pickers but to all their nameless forebears. As Jia planned to say recently in a meditation on writing that he was unable to deliver in America, “stamina – and things learned from personal experience – are what really matter.”

Happy Dreams may be the ultimate vindication of Jia’s view of literary creation. He should be assured that Harman’s translation gives lasting quarter to the laborers of Freshwind within the transnational literary city. ∎


Jia Pingwa, trans. Nicky Harman, Happy Dreams (Amazon Crossing, 2017)
Also on the China Channel, read Jia Pingwa discuss the origins of the novel.