Such is this world

Book Review: Such Is This World@sars.come

Such is this worldI have been intrigued by Hu Fayun’s Such Is This World@sars.come since I read Perry Link’s excellent review of the Chinese text back in the fall of 2010. It even inspired me to pick up a copy of the book in Chinese from Amazon.cn, which I read the first twenty or so pages of at my agonizingly slow pace before putting it down for something else. Later, when I learned the mainland Chinese version was heavily censored anyway, I felt rather disinclined to pick it back up, and so there on the shelf it sits.

Luckily for me, A. E. Clark took it upon himself to translate the novel in its entirety. Problem solved! And even better, the book is available in hardcover and e-book versions. I had the fortune to be able to check them both out, as Mr Clark was kind enough to send me a hard copy in addition to the PDF version that I read with ease on my Kindle ((a wonderful device for travelers, by the way.)) .

Both versions are excellent, although Clark has annotated his text with a veritable mountain of end notes that weren’t easily accessible in a PDF. It can also be a bit of a hassle to flip back and forth to the notes in the book, but I can understand the decision not to include them as footnotes, as it would have made the novel look more like a scholarly text at first glance (which is often all a book shopper ever gives a book, those who still buy their books in “bookstores” ((Physical locations in space where books were once collected and offered for sale)) anyway). But the truth is, the novel can be enjoyed entirely without reading the notes. A thorough reader will be rewarded, certainly, but even the average reader with little knowledge of China will be able to read most of the book without flipping back and forth to glance at the end notes.

As for the translation, it is excellent. Clark clearly knows that with this kind of source material, the best thing he can do is step out of the way and let the tale weave its magic, and for the most part, he succeeds in doing that. One might easily read this book without realizing it had been translated from another language, were it not for the copious end notes. And what’s more, at least based on the few pages of the Chinese original I have read, Clark has managed to approximate original author Hu Fayun’s writing style, which is artful but wholly unpretentious.

In fact, the only place where Hu’s writing abilities seem to have failed him (and even Clark’s expert translation abilities cannot save him here) is in the title. The Chinese original is Ru Yan@sars.come, Ru Yan being the name of the protagonist. I have read the book, and I understand why it was called this, sort of, but that is an awful title. Absolutely awful. When I was at home, I told family members I was in the middle of reading a book called Such is This World@sars.come and they looked at me like I was from the moon. I don’t blame them; it’s not at all clear that’s a even title. It looks like a poorly mistyped email address! The title is awful. Clark does attempt to explain it somewhat in a footnote, but I’m not buying it.

Luckily, you only have to read the title once, and then you can start the actual book, which is much better. The plot revolves primarily around a 40-something widow named Ru Yan whose only son has gone abroad to study, leaving her home alone with a dog and a computer that her son has connected to the internet for her. Through this new window into China, Ru Yan quickly makes contact, though indirectly at first, with the book’s other occasional protagonist, an older intellectual named Damo whose story we experience largely through flashbacks that take him and a small group of like-minded thinkers through the Cultural Revolution, the opening up of the 1980s, and eventually into the present, where some have moved abroad, others have remained at home but joined the system they once scorned, and Damo alone has persevered in the cause, writing articles of exquisite incisiveness online whenever he isn’t busy fixing people’s refrigerators.

It might seem paradoxical that the story of an elderly widow could resonate with a young, strapping lad such as myself ((OK, “strapping” may be an exaggeration. Or an outright lie.)), but actually, Ru Yan’s is a story of discovery that many China watchers have experienced firsthand. As she is wowed by the opportunities and the sheer vastness the internet offers, so too are many foreigners blown away by their first experiences in China. Eager to make sense of it all, they tend to burrow by choice or by circumstance into small communities of like-minded people, just as Ru Yan gets her first real taste of the ‘net life by joining an empty nest forum for lonely parents. And, eventually, something causes them to venture beyond that community, or even works its way inside it, and forces them to realize that not all is perfect in paradise. So it is with Ru Yan, too.

As you might or might not have guessed from the stupid title, the main plot arc revolves around the SARS outbreak, which Ru Yan gets an early handle on because a family member of hers in the south has come down with the mysterious disease. Eager to warn her new friends on the internet, she posts about SARS on the forum, and people who remember the SARS outbreak can probably guess how things go from there. Her posts are deleted, she receives odd threats, others step in to her defense, and ultimately a war of sorts breaks out. Political agendas are being pushed on both sides, but Ru Yan doesn’t see herself as political at all, she simply thinks people ought to be warned about the disease.

Hu Fayun
Author Hu Fayun
Against this backdrop, Ru Yan’s offline life is expanding. A coworker has introduced her to the city’s most eligible bachelor, who happens to be a high official in charge of public health. And a meet-up of internet friends offline has connected her with Damo and his circle of intellectuals, which now includes as CASS professor, an overworked lawyer, and several overseas Chinese.

There are several conversations about China’s future and overseas Chinese in the book that I think should be required reading for the entire comments section of this blog. In fact, the book as a whole contains honest and open political discussions of the sort that are far too lacking these days whether we’re talking about China or any other country. By setting these arguments as mostly between friends, Hu is able to portray both perspectives fairly and honestly, although it is clear where his own feelings lie. At one point, Damo is talking to one of his best friends, the CASS professor, who he has discovered has written a toadying book and, to Damo’s way of thinking, betrayed the cause of greater freedoms in China. There are several extended and fascinating discussions of this, but one ends with Damo Teacher Wei, the group’s elder mentor, saying,

“I tell you, Maozi, when I learned about that book of yours I cursed you in my heart, but even more fiercely did I curse the environment that consumes a human being, devours him right down to the bones. China doesn’t lack for experts in political thought. Her scholars don’t lack for brains. It’s just that some have been smothered, others have been intimidated, and still others have freely made themselves accomplices. If you want to talk about tragedies, this is the greatest tragedy that can befall a people.”

Update note: I mistakenly attributed this quote to Damo, but it’s actually from Teacher Wei, a fascinating character and one of my favorites in the book, but also a man whose story almost requires a novel to tell it — I simply couldn’t find an artful way to squeeze him in here. Suffice it to say that he is yet another reason you should read this book.

This is one of the novel’s central theses, actually, but to definite it by its political aspects alone would be overly simplistic. It is, I think, one of those great works of art in which there are villainous acts but no true villains, in which every character is if not likable then at least human. Hu Fayan has resisted the urge to make the censors and the bureaucrats of this book into Hitlers, and even in a scene where city workers are brutally killing dogs, ostensibly because it might stop the spread of SARS, Hu conveys their actions with contempt but also with a kind of understanding that these actions are borne of the society, the environment, in which those workers live. (Ru Yan the character is a much less forgiving critic of the dog-killers, but it is my suspicion that it’s Damo, not Ru Yan, who is the proxy for the author’s own perspective in this novel).

Anyway, this review has gone on far too long, and in the course of writing it I am learning that Such Is This World is a book that’s very difficult to sum up without missing something. Richard from Peking Duck came close when he wrote:

Hu Fayun has written the book I’ve dreamed of: historical fiction that truly captures what China was like during the time of SARS, and that in doing so opens a panoramic historiographical window on modern China.

I will go even simpler: this is a good book, and you should buy it. You should buy it because if you’re reading this blog (yes, even if you’re just here to troll the comments section) you will probably like it, and you will definitely learn something from it. You should also buy it to help ensure that in the future, translations of excellent and important works such as this continue to be written.

Kudos to Mr. Hu and to Mr. Clark for this wonderful piece of literature.

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0 thoughts on “Book Review: Such Is This World@sars.come”

  1. When I finally catch up on my China reading this will be added to the stack. As a foreigner working in a Chinese hospital, I’m a little worried that I might find out more than I want to know.

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  2. Tremendous stuff. I will be leaning on my local library. Villainous acts versus real villains….the fictional space.

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  3. @ di: Well, the censored version is available in most bookstores on the mainland. To buy an uncensored copy, you’d need to go to Hong Kong or Taiwan probably. But I bet the uncensored text is also available online somewhere, if you’re into that.

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  4. It is a real shame they don´t offer the book in a good eReader format (it says they “loaded” it on a kindle, but the kindle is awful when it comes to processing pdf files). And I can´t seem to find the uncensored chinese version online (and don´t have the time/money for a HK/TW trip). 😦

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