Why the postwar novel Fortress Beseiged deserves a re-read – Brendan O’Kane
Qian Zhongshu is a tough pitch to win the Nobel prize in literature this year. He’s dead, for starters – traditionally an obstacle to many things, including winning Nobel prizes – and his total creative output consists solely of a few essays, several short stories, and a single novel. On the other hand, that novel, Fortress Besieged, seems to me to be the high-water mark of something significant, if hard to explain, so I’m going to make my best case for it being enough to secure Qian’s place in history. The book takes its title from a French proverb, sets its action in the China of the 1930s, and tracks the misfortunes of Fang Hongjian, a feckless, cowardly student returning from Europe with a mail-order doctorate in Chinese from an American university that exists only in the imagination of a crooked Irishman. It may be one of the most cosmopolitan books ever written; certainly it is, as literary critic C. T. Hsia said, one of the greatest Chinese novels of the 20th century.
We meet the protagonist, Fang Hongjian, in the summer of 1937 as he and his fellow Chinese students return to China aboard a French steamer. He livens up the journey by flirting unsuccessfully with two of the female passengers. In Shanghai, which has just fallen under Japanese occupation, Fang renews his acquaintance with one of the young women, a PhD named Miss Su – and promptly falls for her cousin. He clammily courts both women for a time before working up the nerve to break things off with Miss Su, who has been expecting Fang to propose to her. In retaliation, she destroys any chance he might have with her cousin.