Such Genteel Flaming!

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin
    Pantheon, 222 pp, £20.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 307 91162 9

There’s a strange moment in Ha Jin’s new novel when the narrator, Feng Danlin, an expatriate Chinese journalist writing on culture and politics for an independent news agency based in New York, is asked by one of the organisers of a festival of Chinese culture, held in Berlin, to assess a dozen or so translated novels that have been chosen as representative of modern writing in China. Danlin seems to accept the weakness of the domestic product, not suggesting for instance that something has been lost in translation, and says only: ‘These authors are major names and are regarded as the best ones writing now.’ The organiser, Stefan, sighs and says, almost inaudibly: ‘That country has more than a billion people.’ He isn’t convinced that the festival, which cost more than a million euros to put on, was worth the trouble.

Danlin broods over this later that night:

I regretted not having explained to Stefan that those writers, every one of them, were talented but had to toe the line, not only on the page but also in their imaginations, because they received salaries from the state and could not afford to jeopardise their livelihoods. I wondered whether Stefan would have shown sympathy or contempt for my explanation. Most Westerners didn’t have a clue how harshly and subtly censorship worked on an artist in China, whose talent, however prodigious, ultimately became docile and atrophied.

Jin himself was studying in the US at the time of the occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and became an American citizen rather than return. In an interview with Granta in 2009 he explained that his choice of English as his literary language had two motives: ‘to separate my existence from the state power of China and to preserve the integrity of my work’. His books, though banned in China, have been translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan, so that readers in the diaspora have access to them.

A dissident writer makes a brief appearance in The Boat Rocker, though in his case outsider status doesn’t seem to have brought an increase in imaginative range. He’s a poet living in London whose presence at the festival causes the Chinese ambassador to pull out of an evening reception. The organisers regard this almost as a coup, and congratulate him on his power ‘to nettle the top Chinese diplomat’. The poet looks bemused, still holding the long-stemmed rose that had been presented to him at the end of his reading, and gives the briefest possible answers to questions. His priority seems to be getting his wine glass topped up.

A writer like Jin, based in America, has no need to toe the line, and an expatriate commentator like his protagonist Danlin, working for the Global News Agency in New York, has a freedom to hold the Chinese authorities and agencies to account, even if it’s only in the court of public opinion. Danlin has a respectable readership in print, and a large one online. Some of his columns even make it to the mainland, though most of his readership is outside China. He looks young enough at 36 to be asked for ID when buying alcohol, but in the course of the book his name is suggested for a list of the hundred top Chinese public intellectuals published by a news website with the classically euphemistic name Harmonious Times. He is in a good position to get the measure of the relationship between America and modern China, not an easy subject to treat in literary terms, if you discount the simplifying resources of allegory – the spendthrift sustained by the merchant who keeps extending him credit.

Danlin has faith in the transformative power of the internet: ‘It can give every individual a voice and every tyrant a shudder. It makes every computer a potential radio station.’ His boss at the news agency is more cynical, assuming that shared interests will put a brake on any real change: ‘They’re bound together. China has become a large US factory, so the communist regime will remain in place for many years unless China miscalculates and challenges America’s supremacy.’

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