Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China, edited by Liu Deng, Carol Yinghua Lu and Ra Page, Comma Press, RRP£9.99, 224 pages
Comma Press’s website tells us that this anthology of Chinese stories was launched “to coincide with the China Market Focus at this year’s London Book Fair”. It is, therefore, impossible to read it without thinking of the controversy over the event’s guest list, which favoured state-approved writers at the expense of dissident voices.
No doubt compromises were made as the organisers pursued a strategy of “dialogue” with the Chinese literary establishment. But the wider argument that underpinned criticism of the fair – that authors active in the People’s Republic write under such strict censorship as to render their work socially insignificant, even aesthetically redundant – is open to question. This intriguing collection, made up of newly translated stories originally published in China, certainly provides evidence to the contrary.
It is true that there are no direct references here to human rights violations, to Tiananmen or Tibet. But the pieces included in Shi Cheng (Ten Cities) – are far from uncritical of the status quo. Take Diao Dou’s “Squatting”, which treats problems such as bureaucracy and corruption with a delicious irony. Set in Shenyang in China’s chilly north-east, it recounts the enactment of a series of increasingly absurd government diktats.
Elsewhere, Cao Kou’s “But What About the Red Indians?” concerns a poor migrant worker driven to random acts of violence, while Xu Zechen’s “Wheels Are Round” reflects on the scattergun entrepreneurialism and economic inequality of the new Beijing. “Everyone in the whole country knew that opportunity here was like birdshit”, says the arch narrator, “while you weren’t looking it would spatter on your head and make you rich.” Now that is hardly a line calculated to please the politburo.
These tales, then, are clearly the product of a particular society at a particular time. But one would not wish to place too much emphasis on their ineluctable Chineseness. As the title suggests, the writers here can be placed in a wider artistic tradition that looks to render the frantic and fragmented urban experience. Zhu Wen’s “How to Look at Women” describes a fleeting encounter reminiscent of Baudelaire’s poetry, while Yi Sha’s “Rendezvous at Castle Hotel” recalls the novels of Haruki Murakami in its depiction of svelte city-dwellers.
Such resonances suggest that the authors are keen to participate in a literary conversation beyond national borders, and that is something the editors of this volume have enabled. On balance, they perform a valuable service in making these rich, varied and rewarding stories known to a western audience, for all that the politics of cultural engagement remain fraught.