Book review – The Book of Sins by Chen Xiwo

By Michael Rank

The Book of Sins by Chen Xiwo, translated by Nicky Harman (Forty-six, London)

sinsIt’s unlikely that Chinese President Xi Jinping has read much if anything by Chen Xiwo 陈 希我 but we can safely assume that if he did he would not approve.

Xi recently told Chinese artists and writers that “Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles”, and there few exhilarating bursts of sunshine or gentle spring breezes in Chen’s angry short stories. Instead Chen paints a picture of contemporary Chinese society in painful transition between the totalitarian, conformist Mao era and the chaotic, money-grabbing present-day that is suffused with sexual anxiety. Graphic images of physical deformity, voyeurism, masturbation and incest make for a disturbing read, but the seven short stories in this collection have been fluently translated by Nicky Harman and for all the grimness The Book of Sins (Chinese title: 冒犯书)is full of surprises that make one carry on reading.

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Chen Xiwo

The author lived in Japan from 1989 to 1994, and now teaches comparative literature at Fuzhou Normal University in southern China. Like authors such as Yukio Mishima and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki Chen’s stories are full of sexual torment and moral ambiguity. But they are leavened with a certain bleak humour and by occasional dashes of magical realism, especially in Going to Heaven, a tale told by the young son of a village undertaker who makes friends with a Daoist monk who he believes wants to die before him so he can rush off to heaven and grab the boy’s sister’s mobile phone.

Kidney Tonic is the story of a successful but impotent businessman who develops a voyeuristic obsession with his neighbour whom he watches masturbating. The neighbour’s wife is arrested for getting hold of the kidney of an executed gangster known as Bin Laden which she plans to give to her husband as an aphrodisiac, but the businessman bribes an official at the detention centre where she is being held to get her out. The theme of cannibalism in modern Chinese literature as a metaphor for social exploitation goes back to the great early 20th century writer Lu Xun 鲁迅 and in recent times there have been frequent reports of executed prisoners’ organs being harvested for transplants, and Chen successfully combines these two themes to depict the cruelty and ruthlessness that permeate contemporary Chinese society.

Sometimes Chen is more explicit in his political commentary. In Pain, a woman who is wracked by constant pain recalls how her mother

“…would tell me how her generation had lived – putting things to rights after the Cultural Revolution, the Reform and Opening Up period, respecting education, developing the economy, the fight against corruption, the progress towards a glorious future.

”Your generation is so lucky, what more do you want? You just don’t know how lucky you are…’

“But the word ‘glorious’ was like hitting a gleaming pain of reinforced glass – I was in more pain than ever.

“‘What more do I want? I want to be happy!’ I shouted. ‘You think I’m really happy? I’m in pain. I’ve been in pain since I was born! You shouldn’t have had me if you couldn’t give me happiness. Why shouldn’t I go and look for happiness myself?'”

Not surprisingly Chen has frequently fallen foul of Chinese censors and the stories in The Book of Sins have only been published in China in highly bowlderised form. But Chen is a determined individual and in an unprecedented move he took the Chinese customs service to court when an imported copy from Taiwan was confiscated as pornography in 2007. Not surprisingly he was unsuccessful, but he appealed and had the following conversation at the appeal hearing:

“Please can the Customs Office tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?”
“That is a state secret. I cannot tell you. We have explained this to the court.”
“In that case, could your Honour tell me why The Book of Sins was confiscated?”
“That is a state secret. I cannot tell you,’ responded the judge.

Chen wrote to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress with a further appeal, he writes on the website of the London-based Free Word Centre, but received no reply.

“The whole thing reminded me of Kafka’s The Trial, where the unfortunate K was banged up in prison for reasons that neither he nor his captors were allowed to know. They were smothered by something intangible: ‘the system’. In the same way, as long as power is concentrated in the hands of the Communist Party in China, then anyone can become a ‘criminal’. We are not just talking about ordinary folk. Liu Shaoqi, second-in-command to Chairman Mao, was imprisoned and so badly treated that he died. And there’s Zhou Yongkan[g], member of the Politburo Standing Committee until 2012 and currently held on corruptions charges. No doubt his trial, even if it is ‘public’, will be just as much of a politically-motivated farce.”

These are extremely brave words by an author whose writings the Chinese government views as highly provocative and who must live in constant fear of arrest. But the author’s given name Xiwo, a pen name, means something like “take hope in me” and he is in real life no snarling nihilist but a friendly, soft spoken individual who clearly enjoys life. He told me when I met him in London recently that his position in the Japanese rather than Chinese literature department of his university gave him a modicum of protection. But he is treading on dangerous ground and he will need all the protection he can get.

• More of Chen’s blog posts can be found on the Free Word Centre’s website here.

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