Budapest-based Chinese writer who’s happy inHungary
Yu Zemin is known as the spokesman for Hungarian writers in China’s literary circles.
The Budapest-based translator and author has introduced many well-known novelists from the country to Chinese readers through translations and his own writings.
Published earlier this year, Paper Fishbowl is Yu’s latest novel. It tells the story of a young Chinese man who moves to Hungary amid its radical changes in the early 1990s.
The protagonist, Situ Jiqing, grewup in a working family in Beijing but rebels at the prospect of living a monotonous life.
Situ grabs an opportunity to run a small business in Russia but ends up becoming an illegal immigrant in Hungary, where his friendships and romances with Hungarians begin.
“I’m not Situ. I haven’t stowed away or made a living selling small goods on the street,” Yu says during a book talk in Beijing on Sunday. “But the feeling is real.” Huang Jiakun, a literary agent at Andrew Nurnberg Literary Agency, says: “From the perspective of the growth of a young man, the novel is universal. Whether in China, Hungary, the United States or the United Kingdom, young people all seek their identities from their bodies, cultures and places they live in.”
Yu went to Hungary in 1991 without knowing about the country. He couldn’t speak a word of the language.
“I just wanted to go out and see the world, and Hungary was visa-free for Chinese,” says Yu.
“So I boarded a train toMoscow and another from there to Budapest.”
Yu was born in Beijing in 1964. Foreign literature was Fishbowl. Paper largely forbidden during his childhood because of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). Still, he cultivated a love of reading because his cousin was a high school librarian.
He writes in his memoir that he readmoreliterary than medical books as a Beijing Medical University student.
His first years in Hungary were tough. He didn’t have a stable job and was just beginning to learn the language. But local friends helped him.
“I was literally a drifter,” he recalls.
“I ate and stayed with friends. At one point, I had a key chain with keys to lots of friends’ homes.”
He didn’t study Hungarian in formal classes.
“Pubs and cafes were my school, and friends and dictionaries weremy teachers.”
Yu kept a diary during this period. He says the initial idea of his new novel was derived from stories about the people he encountered.
In 1992, Yu met University of Szeged professor Janos Herner, who introduced him to several Hungarian writers, including Gabor Karatson and Akos Szilagyi.
In 1998, Yu accompanied Laszlo Krasznahorkai as an interpreter during his China visit. His translation career began when he translated one of Krasznahorkai’s short stories afterward. TheHungarian won the Man Booker International Prize in 2015.
Yu became known by Chinese readers through his translations of the works of Imre Kertesz, the late Hungarian novelist who won the Nobel in 2002.
“I reallyadmireYuZeminfor his translations of Hungarian writers,” Beijing International Studies University literature professor Liu Yan says.
“Over the past 20 years, we’ve paid a lot of attention to foreign literature from major languages. But what Yu has done is very meaningful and cannot be substituted.”
Budapest-based author Yu Zemin and his new novel,