National Absurdity

Harvey Thomlinson reviews David Hull’s translation of Pidgin Warrior

Zhang Tianyi’s long-interred Pidgin Warrior, now resurrected in David Hull’s translation, marches us to 1930s Shanghai, where national identity is, as ever, an anxious question. This particular stage of China’s perennial crisis of the “Western challenge,” ongoing since the humiliation of the “unequal treaties” of the Opium Wars, has acquired existential urgency thanks to the Japanese military invasion. Bristling Confucians prescribe a restoration of tradition while liberal pragmatists call for Westernization to “save China,” and Marxists are on the rampage to destroy “feudal culture.”


In the Gutter, Looking at the Stars

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.