Originally published on Rue89, 28/02/2010.
Provocative and talented … a collection of short stories, “I Love Dollars” by Zhu Wen, a Chinese writer rather unknown but who had the honor of being published by Columbia University, has been translated into French. Other translations are planned, although now, the author devotes himself mainly to directing films.
Economic liberalization but for morality, a waste land :
“I Love Dollars” includes five short novels and a short story. Many topics: first of all, the hypocrisy of filial piety, everyone runs away and it is the friend of the daughter who suffers the evil mood of the father overnight in the hospital.
It is also the father who is the hero of the short story that provides its title to the collection, and his son, a writer, has to find a woman for his dad … Unspecified threats on a boat trip are followed by stories of racket and the difficulties of a group of engineers confronted with the decline of a public enterprise.
Confusion of characters pushed around by the events and who lack backbone; they have few goals in life or roots while everything changes. Money is a permanent obsession, like sex as a commodity.
Economic reforms have led to greater freedom, but the burden of power, violence of economic relations and the traditional family structure, limit the autonomy of people who claim their individuality. The tone is neutral, satirical, biting enough, the author has little sympathy for his characters.
Books and then movies:
Born in Fujian Province, south China, Zhu Wen studied engineering at Nanjing and worked five years in a power plant. In 1994, not even thirty years old, he began to write poems and especially the short story “I Love Dollars” an immediate success. He is considered the cynical heir of the “hooligan-writer “Wang Shuo.
He is totally unconcerned by politics, he later on explained that the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in spring 1989 were far too tiring an exercise and that he preferred to stay in bed. The novelist Ma Jian, author of “Beijing Coma” will not forgive him.
Over ten years later, with his friend Han Dong (whose first book “Banished” has been translated into English by Nicky Harman), he founded the literary movement “Breaking Out”, which aims to defend the freedom of the writer. The ambition to part with the old guard and the officials of literature organizations met some success but did not prevent Zhu Wen from publishing several collections of short stories and a novel.
He is a “free” writer, it is not freedom of speech; he has a position in the market economy and not as a writer / official in the socialist system. It quickly became obvious that the writer cannot beat the system, because of general indifference and control of power. In the years 2000, he stopped writing. Already known as a script writer, he becomes a director whose films unfortunately have not been shown in France.
Outside official channels, “Seafood”, a gloomy story of a prostitute and a corrupted cop in Beidahe, the sea resort closest to Beijing, won an award at Venice Festival. And “South of the Clouds” shows us a pensioned fellow visiting the province of Yunnan, the dream of a lifetime, to find himself near the Lugu Lake, among Mosuo, an ethnic group of matriarchal tradition where women enjoy complete freedom, but where the Chinese tourism installs brothels and karaoke!
► I Love Dollars by Zhu Wen, translated from the Chinese by Catherine Charmant (ed Albin Michel, 350 pp, 20 €).
In English, translation by Julia Lovell, Penguin, 2008.