Friday, 13 March 2015

Book Review: Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen
Economic crisis or not, for few of us life is a bed of roses. Every day means a more or less hard fight for survival, especially when you are forced to seize any opportunity to earn a living, however unattractive or disreputable it may be, like the protagonist of the Chinese novel that I’m reviewing today. Often it seems easier to get along as a petty criminal than to find a decent and honest job that still allows you to make ends meet. In Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen a young man from the country soon makes this experience and becomes part of the thriving underworld of Beijing trafficking first faked papers and then pirated DVDs. Along the way he gets involved with beautiful Xiaorong and Quibao who both came to Beijing dreaming of a better life like himself.

Xu Zechen (徐则臣) was born in Jiangsu Province, China, in 1978. During his studies of Chinese literature at Beijing University he made his debut as a writer of short stories. His first novel was 河水向西 (2002; The River Flows West) which was followed by Running Through Beijing (跑步穿过中关村: 2008), 水边书 (2010; At the Water's Edge), and 耶路撒冷 (2014; Jerusalem). Others of his works apart from several short stories published individually and in collections are the long novellas 夜火车 (2009; Night Train) and 天上人间 (2009, Heaven on Earth). With the exception of the novel reviewed here and a few short stories nothing of it has been translated into English or other languages yet. Xu Zechen is editor of People's Literature (人民文学) magazine and lives in Beijing.

The young man Running Through Beijing is the petty criminal Dunhuang who has just been released from prison where he served three months for trafficking fake papers. The twenty-five-year-old doesn’t really know what to do now because the whole gang has been rounded up and having come from a country town not too long ago he knows hardly anyone else. Hoping to find at least one person to help him back on his feet, he returns to his old quarters, but he is disappointed. Nobody of the old gang is left and a sandstorm is sweeping over the city. Having taken shelter under a roof he is addressed by a beautiful girl selling pirated films on DVD. She is nice and they begin a conversation smoking cigarettes together. In the end Dunhuang invites the girl, whose name turns out to be Xiaorong, to have dinner with him in a small restaurant. Of course, he intends to dodge the bill using an old trick and succeeds. By the end of the evening, Dunhuang has told Xiaorong that he has no place to sleep in and she takes him with her to her apartment. They begin an affair and the following day Dunhuang joins her in selling pirated DVDs for which he turns out to have a good hand. At the same time Dunhuang sets out to fulfil a promise made to his mate Bao Ding who was arrested with him and because of him. He searches for his girlfriend Qibao to take care of her until Bao Ding’s release from prison, but he has seen her only once from behind and doesn’t know her family name. And then there’s Xiaorong’s former boyfriend Shan who turns up again after a while forcing Dunhuang to quickly find a new place to stay at although he can at least continue selling DVDs for the reunited couple…

The story of Dunhuang Running Through Beijing is a rather conventional third-person narrative even though its opening in hopelessly smoggy Beijing during one of those terrible sandstorms which bring yellow sand from Gobi desert into the city and make the air almost unbreathable adds a dash of the exotic to it, at least from the point of view of a reader who isn’t familiar with sandstorms. His life is that of many young Chinese flocking from the country into the big cities and making their livings on the streets with all kinds of legal and illegal activities. Dunhuang is always on the run metaphorically speaking as well as literally as the title indicates and there’s little more to his life than that. However, the harsh living conditions in Beijing haven’t deprived him of the old values which he was taught at home. He keeps his promises, he helps his friends and he tries to put things right when he has wronged somebody like in the case of Bao Ding for whose arrest he feels responsible. His emotional bonds first to Xiaorong and then to Qibao remain superficial and immature throughout the novel. Dunhuang also isn’t a great thinker, but takes every day as it comes without giving it much importance. Altogether the strictly linear plot is simple and doesn’t offer unexpected turns, nor deep insights into human existence. Life just flows as it often does in reality. Maybe its simplicity is partly owing to the fact that the author merged three originally independent stories into one. I won’t presume to give my opinion on the novel’s language. The German edition left me with a good impression, but I’m aware that translations from Chinese into any western language are particularly tricky and require extraordinary skill. As regards the English edition I know nothing about it.

As you can see, I had a good time reading Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen and considering that there aren’t actually heaps of contemporary Chinese literature available in English or German translation, I’m the more willing to recommend it. The novel certainly gives some insight into the lives of Chinese people in the country’s booming cities of today.

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