Zhu Wen interview

A new volume translates the controversial Chinese writer into English

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Controversial Chinese author Zhu Wen’s latest collection of short stories has just been translated into English. We chat to him about what to expect.

Zhu Wen first attracted attention in 1994 with his short story entitled I Love Dollars. The tale relays the narrator’s attempts to prove his filial devotion by providing his visiting father with a woman. Slammed by some critics as written ‘only for shock’, it nonetheless remains today as one of the most scathing indictments of a post-socialist China whose moral structure was in shreds.

Now the author is presenting a new English-language short story collection. The Matchmaker, The Apprentice, And The Football Fan: More Stories Of China depicts a similar heap of sordid characters who chase cash and ego with abandon.

The protagonists here – often misogynistic men – are self-obsessed and smug, but also rattled by existential anxiety. In order to fill the void, they embark on an endless search of momentary pleasures.

The fact that Zhu’s new collection seems stuck playing the same old record is hardly surprising, given that these stories were also written in the 1990s and have only now been translated into English (superbly, by Julia Lovell). ‘I feel like I’m the agent for the writer who wrote this book [years ago],’ Zhu notes wryly.

The Beijing-based maverick writer and director was born in 1967 in the southern province of Fujian. He studied engineering before spending half a decade working in a thermal power plant. In 1994 Zhu, to the disapproval of his teacher parents, quit to take up writing full-time.

He found almost immediate success, in literary circles at least, with the publication of I Love Dollars. But today Zhu, with characteristic nonchalance, dismisses his literary ambitions. ‘It seems like writing was just my excuse to resign [from the power plant],’ he says. ‘I never really intended to become a writer.’

This studied casualness infuses his writing. It displays an indifference and a heavy dose of frisky humour that seem to poke fun at the morose earnestness of much of China’s modern literary canon.

Yet for much of our discussion, Zhu seems guarded, providing clipped answers. When asked how he finds the differences between writing and directing, for example, he replies unhelpfully: ‘Writing and directing are two expressions of art. One tells the story with language, the other tells the story with visual images.’

There is a notable exception: the topic of the Cultural Revolution, which Zhu witnessed as a child. Zhu sees his characters, these nihilistic, powerless anti-heroes, as products of the emptiness of those years. ‘My generation of youth is quite tragic,’ he says. ‘Because we were born in a time that lacks morality. In the sense of lacking a good education system. It’s a gap, a black hole.’
From Dhs70 at www.amazon.com.

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