by Geling Yan
Faber ₤10.99, 276 pages
FT bookshop price: ₤8.79
In the not-too-distant future, reading and writing Chinese may be as indispensable to understanding the larger world as English is today. For the time being, many Chinese authors - mostly among the ever-growing Chinese diaspora - are content to abandon their native tongue in favour of today’s universally accepted language of exchange.
A year ago, Yiyun Li’s debut short-story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, offered a nuanced glimpse of life in contemporary China. Now, in a somewhat more farcical vein, comes Geling Yan’s The Uninvited, a novel that aims to depict the corruption that is embedded in the heart of modern Chinese society.
The novel’s hero is Dan Dong, an unemployed factory worker squatting in a Beijing cannery’s top floor. While attending a job interview at a hotel, Dan is mistaken for a journalist - he is, after all, wearing his best polyester sports jacket - and ushered into a banquet hall. Here Dan learns about one of the joys that western-style journalism has brought to modern China: the freebie.
Dan discovers that by pretending to be a journalist he can gain access to exclusive feasts laid out for members of the press by public and private organisations trying to gain favourable media exposure. Besides being fed exquisite dishes - shark fin, pigeon tongues, jellyfish, roast peacock - attendees can expect a cash-filled envelope for their trouble. Here, Dan realises, is the perfect opportunity to keep a full belly and bring money home to his wife. Thus begins his career as a “banquet bug”.
But posing as a hack is not as simple as Dan thinks. He begins to attract the attention of people who consider him the perfect man to give a voice to their cause. A group of peasants expects him to write about their sufferings. A foot-masseuse wants him to write about her sister’s unjust execution. A restaurant owner offers free meals in exchange for a good review. A shady developer offers an apartment for puffing non-existent housing projects. Dan lacks the courage to let any of them know he can hardly compose a sentence.
Yan’s previous book, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, was a period novel set in gold-rush San Francisco and originally written in Chinese. Now a permanent US resident, Yan wrote The Uninvited in English, and some of the book’s weaknesses stem from her occasionally awkward use of the language. It is the protagonist, though, who is fatally flawed. One tries to take sides with him in this fish-out-of-water tale, yet, frustratingly, he seems to lack any believable motivations. Instead he simply drifts along, guided blindly by the whim of plot convenience, blundering all-too easily into all-too obvious corruption scams.
The Uninvited is a comic denunciation of the rampant sleaze that seems to be the norm in post-Communist China (differing from earlier sleaze because no longer limited to Party cadres). But the biggest dig is reserved for the journalistic profession. It is endearing and funny to read about the near-mystical respect conjured by the words “freelance journalist”. Censorship means that no one can claim full responsibility for their words: “So that’s what a galley proof is,” Dan muses, “approval of others’ garbling of your own writing.” An old artist, referring to his work as much as to Dan’s, puts it more succinctly: “There are a lot of prostitutes nowadays.”
In the end, the greatest irony is that the only person truly fit to write about his country’s ills is almost illiterate. He resents becoming a vehicle for people’s hopes. He resents the disloyalty attached to his journalist’s badge. Asked if he would not consider giving up banquet-crashing to become a real journalist, he replies: “That’s too high a price to eat.”