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July 22, 2011 10:17 pm
Sipping his Lychee Black Dragon Latte, Old Chen, the protagonist of Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, is overcome by emotion. He feels so blessed to be in China at a time of unrivalled power and prosperity that he weeps with joy and tears soon dilute his coffee.
It is 2013 and China rules the world. Its ascendance happened overnight in 2011 when the dollar lost a third of its value in a day, prompting a financial earthquake. To wit, Old Chen is drinking his Lychee Latte in a café owned by the Chinese company that took over Starbucks. Yes, even Starbucks, global purveyor of oversized milkshakes for adults, is now owned by China.
In the midst of this golden age there are inevitably a few discontents. There is Fang Caodi, an old friend of Chen’s, who is convinced that just as the 2011 financial crash occurred, China lost an entire month. The suspense of The Fat Years, a whodunit of sorts, is built around discovering what happened during that month in 2011.
This is a not-so-veiled satire of the Chinese government’s tendency to make dates such as the Tiananmen massacre of June 4 1989 virtually disappear from the country’s history. Published in Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2009, The Fat Years was banned in China for posing uncomfortable questions about Beijing’s selective memory.
The novel is peopled with strange characters. Fang, for instance, becomes convinced that, as an asthma sufferer, he and others like him using inhalers are taking a steroid that not only helps their asthma but immunises them against the optimism epidemic that is so virulent in China.
The hunch becomes a conviction when Fang saves the life of a young musician who has just been beaten with clubs by a gang of neo-fascists for the heck of it. The musician also uses an inhaler and he too remembers a month in 2011 when there was a bout of panicked buying at grocery stores in China and even a run on pet food.
Old Chen is on a hunt of a more quotidian sort. He is searching for an old flame, Little Xi, whom he meets after years apart but is unable to find again because Xi, a dissident blogger, keeps changing addresses. The cross-country search Chen embarks on to find her while his mind lurches between self-doubt and optimism is touchingly depicted.
Xi used to be a judge but quit after the pressure to use the death penalty for minor offences became too intense. Unlike just about everyone else around her, she does not suffer from the optimism bug. It’s hard to blame her. Her son, Wei Guo, is a bright law student who aspires to become a high-ranking member of the Communist party’s propaganda department.
Wei is a neo-fascist and it is he and his buddies who wait outside a nightclub to beat the young musician Fang saves. The motive? As far as one can tell, Wei and his friends simply don’t like the look of him. Wei is on the lookout for his mother but only to turn her in to the authorities.
Among this odd cast there is also a surprisingly likeable Communist party official who is an insomniac and drives around Beijing in the wee hours of the night.
Reading this book in 2011 is disquieting because some aspects of Chan’s dystopian China are already here. The brutal crackdown on activist lawyers and others who question the state, for instance, began months ago as a paranoid response to the democratic revolutions sweeping across north Africa. Then there is the assembling of 80,000 people in Chongqing in late June to sing Communist songs from decades ago; the provincial leader, Bo Xilai, even had that consummate air-brushing mandarin of Chinese history, Henry Kissinger, on the dais as an honoured guest.
Huxley’s Brave New World is an obvious inspiration for Chan’s novel but there are other, cheerier possibilities. Millions of Chinese are freer than they have ever been in conducting their lives. Chan is an example. He relocated from Hong Kong – which has different laws because of the autonomy it was promised when it was returned to China in 1997 – to Beijing about a decade ago. The optimism implicit in that move is not reflected in this novel. Perhaps Chan needs another Lychee Latte.
Rahul Jacob is the FT’s South China correspondent
The Fat Years, by Chan Koonchung, translated by Michael S. Duke, Doubleday, RRP £12.99, 307 pages
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