In keeping with our featured book this week, Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, we cover today an interview with the book’s translator Julia Lovell, conducted by the Los Angeles Review of Books.
In the interview, Lovell discusses the compelling points of translating The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, especially as the book compares to both Zhu Wen’s previous collection of short fiction, I Love Dollars, and other prominent contemporary Chinese writers.
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On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories” is “both darker and denser than the first.” Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?
Julia Lovell: I think that’s a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection – in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. That’s less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the People’s Republic – “Da Ma’s Way of Talking” and “The Apprentice” – are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrator’s sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.
But I’m still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, I’m working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists – all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the book’s hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha.
JW: When I first encountered Zhu Wen, while struck by the originality of his voice and approach, I did think of parallels to the “hooligan fiction” of Wang Shuo that I was initially introduced to by reading Geremie Barme’s take on him. Does Zhu Wen acknowledge being influenced at all by Wang Shuo’s early work? Does he place himself in a different sort of lineage, either an international or distinctively Chinese one?
JL: He’s never mentioned that to me as an overt influence, but at the same time I think that Wang Shuo’s broader, more diffuse influence on Chinese culture in general at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s is hard to escape –his role in dissipating some of the intellectual earnestness of the 1980s in particular, and in establishing irreverence towards the state and towards society as a keynote in contemporary Chinese fiction in general. Wittingly or no, Zhu Wen has assuredly extended that project.
When I first got to know them around 2000, some of the Chinese writers of Zhu Wen’s particular literary grouping – termed the xin shengdai, or “New Generation,” of writers (a rather loose classification that referred to authors born in the late 1960s to early 1970s and who started publishing in the 1990s) – publicly, and perhaps a little brattishly, liked to reject influences from other Chinese writers, both past and present. Lu Xun, for example, was dismissed as “an old stone”. But this generation of writers are readier to admit foreign influences. Kafka and Borges, for example, are two of Zhu Wen’s acknowledged inspirations. Visiting Zhu Wen in his apartment in 1995, an interviewer noticed a portrait of Kafka hung on one of the walls.
Be sure to read the rest of the Los Angeles Review of Books interview here!