The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
The bleakest sex comedy to come out of Maoist China
by Wang Xiaobo
272pp, Penguin, (0844 871 1514), RRP£18.99, ebook £9.99
Wang Xiaobo has been branded “the Chinese Kafka”. Both died in their early 40s; both wrote as modernists with a profound sense of literary and cultural tradition; both had a great impact on the literary world. Yet Wang has remained unknown in the West until now.
There are parallels, too, between Wang and the protagonist of his novel Golden Age, Wang Er. Both were born in 1952 in Mao’s newly-minted revolutionary China. Both were sent to the countryside for “re-education”, living in cowsheds among peasants. The educated Wang Er spends his days herding oxen and dreaming of losing his virginity. He meets the beautiful doctor Cheng Qinyang and begins a sexually charged relationship, but their affair is discovered by the authorities, who force them to confess their bourgeois crimes, a constant source of entertainment for Party officials.
Written in the 1980s, Golden Age was banned in mainland China in the 1990s. It was first published in Taiwan; pirate copies appeared a few years later in Beijing and Shanghai. It was a popular illegal book on the black market (as was Foucault’s History of Sexuality). Wang died of a heart attack in 1997; in a rare interview a few months before, he said: “You can call my style ‘black humour’, but it is just realism, very real Chinese realism.” Any readers with experience of post-Mao Chinese reality will understand what he meant.
The pleasure of reading is crucial in offsetting the dark character of this era in modern Chinese history – and Golden Age is full of hilarity. There are wonderful observations about sex under public scrutiny. There are also harrowing details: a professor whom Wang Er knows has been so terribly tortured by Red Guards that he jumps from a building. Officials clear away his corpse, but leave chunks of brain on the pavement. The following night, Wang Er walks to the site and discovers those chunks adorned by candles lit by the children of the dead man.
I cannot extol Wang Xiaobo’s penetrating prose enough. But it is only through the eloquent and effective translation, by the Chinese translator Yan Yan, that we have access to it. Yan deftly delivers many unforgettable lines about the strength one needs to live in tragedy. Here is one:
“I no longer wished to wrap my intestines around anyone’s neck.”