Rally driver, novelist, short story writer, essayist, blogger, singer, film director—that’s Han Han (born 1982, Shanghai), the Chinese media superstar who was one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People in the world in 2010. I just read his novel 1988: I Want to Talk with the World (2015) translated by Howard Goldblatt and published by AmazonCrossing—an initiative by the online retail giant that has been launched to bring international fiction to English-speaking readers.
1988: I Want to Talk with the World is a work in the tradition of Jack Kerouac. It tells the story of a young man called Lu Ziye and a fairly good-hearted pregnant prostitute known by different names (Shanshan, Nana, etc.). They meet by chance at a seedy motel called The Golden Triangle and end up sticking and travelling together after an encounter with the police. “1988” is the name of the driver’s wagon.
Lu Ziye has no feelings for Nana but is determined to help her out in whichever way he could. The two course through highways and natural landscapes, opening themselves to each other—forging a strangely innocent and transparent relationship that is neither friendship nor romance but something utterly undefinable. Their adventures are punctuated by flashbacks, of Lu Ziye thinking of his childhood, his infatuations, his fantasies. “When I was still young,” he says at one point, “I often fantasized about a trip like this. Nighttime on a national highway with the girl of my dreams in the car of my dreams on our way to an unknown destination.”
There is a strong melancholic strain through the novel. But Han Han balances that well with bursts of comedy. Although this novel wasn’t too thick on Chinese culture and history (it was more about universal themes), it did open up one particular aspect of contemporary Chinese society in detail and depth—class. There is much talk about “losing face”, quite a few lines dedicated to the harsh reality that in this country you’ll be judged on the basis of the place you were born and grew up in. The connections you make will depend on whether you’re from the “big cities, prefecture-level cities, county towns, small towns, city outskirts, rural areas, mountain areas, and poor mountain areas”.
In the end, what I loved best about the novel was its emphasis on the value of kind acts. No matter how small.
Touching, but Deplorable –
My patience was beginning to run thin. I’m a bit of an insomniac, and the sunlight was starting to hurt my eyes as it found my face through the gaps in the tree. I tried to close the curtains, but they resisted my efforts to shut them all the way. Just thinking about that gap in the curtains could make sleep impossible. I tried everything, but nothing worked. I moved a chair to try to close the curtains from the top.
“Want me to spend the night, mister?” Shanshan asked a second time.
“I’ll give you your fifty,” I said testily, “if you’ll stand here and keep the sun out.
Without a word of protest, Shanshan climbed up onto the chair, and the room turned dark. That was touching, but deplorable. This girl will do anything for money, I said to myself. Not knowing what to say to her, I climbed into bed, pulled the blanket up, and shut my eyes. I had my back to the window, but the idea of a woman standing on a chair like a suicide made me feel like I’d rather have the sunlight. “Shanshan,” I said without looking at her, “there will always be money to earn. Go back to your room and get some rest. You’re too young to be thinking only about money. What do you want so much for, anyway? You—”
“Because I’m carrying somebody’s baby,” came the voice behind me, “and I want to keep it.”
Life is an Abyss –
Life is an abyss. Reminiscing about the past does not mean I miss it, nor that I am disappointed in my present state; it is just a sign that I am getting increasingly withdrawn. Honestly, I should have been the one in bed being talked out of suicide that day. We’re always deceived by the appearance of depression, like some people I knew who tried to help others but killed themselves in the end. It’s a good thing I’d never do that, because I’m convinced that the world is like a wall and that we are cats; I want to leave my scratch marks on the wall before I turn the claws on myself.
Check out other books by Han Han: The Problem with Me: And Other Essays About Making Trouble in China Today (2016) and This Generation: Dispatches from China’s Most Popular Literary Star (and Race Car Driver) (2013).