Monday, October 15, 2012

Going underground

Ge Fei & Han Song, Friday 12th October, 6pm, Chinese Arts Centre

Words by Leona Bashow.

As first blogs go, I’m glad this was the event I chose to attend. I’m a science fiction fan, so I feel a burning curiosity to hear about Chinese sci-fi and Utopian literature. The event is set in the basement of the apt venue of the Chinese Arts Centre and is remarkably timed with the announcement yesterday of the first Chinese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mo Yan; a topic that crops up a number of times during the event.

As the people arrive, a lady near the front row steals a few stitches knitting while simultaneously speaking eagerly to her neighbour. There’s a row of four chairs in a semi-circle at the front ready for the authors, who are waiting at the back chatting.  I hear an analogy being made of the venue: an ‘underground’ setting for some ‘underground’ literature? I hear another snippet of conversation from across the room about the separation of Chinese politics from literature and I wonder - is this ever really possible - perhaps that is the ultimate Chinese Utopia?

As the last members of the audience take their seats, Han Song takes his seat in the first of the four chairs to the left, followed by Ge Fei next to him, in the middle, the Mandarin translator and the event’s chair, Anita Sethi, on the far right. After a brief introduction by Liz from the Festival, Anita gives a biographical snapshot of the authors’ careers and informs us that the event is supported by the British Council and is in collaboration with the Chinese Organising Committee as part of the China Market Focus 2012 cultural programme at the London Book Fair.

Han Song reads first, in English, an extract from his story The Wheels of Samsara, about a girl who stumbles upon a half-ruined Buddhist temple in Tibet and discovers 108 moving wheels... the Wheels of Samsara, which symbolise the eternal cycle of life and death. But they are not all they seem at first and the extract concludes when the girl, after touching the wheels, feels a gale begin to blow and a heavy mist fall. Then there’s a brief silence in the event venue when all you can hear is the air conditioning, which makes the place suddenly feel as if the gale has just blown through the audience...  

It’s Ge Fei’s turn, and Anita is charged with the task of reading his extract in English. She wills the audience to imagine she is Ge Fei then reads from Remembering Mr Wo YouIt’s an intriguing extract that sees a man watch as Mr Wo is shot and the MLF audience is left pondering the axiom: that killing a man is the same as killing a chicken- or is it that killing a chicken is the same as killing a man? Suitably intrigued by both the stories, and as a sci-fi fan, I make a mental note to self: "Must read some Chinese sci-fi."

Next we have a question and answer session, covering the themes of China and the West, Mo Yan and the future of Chinese literature, the authors’ own personal journeys and challenges, Utopia and dystopia, and time. There are even some useful tips for budding writers who double up as academics: leave a year between writing fiction and writing academic work or else your essays will start reading like science-fiction novels!

Han Song, who speaks in English throughout except for brief moments where he seeks assistance from the Mandarin interpreter, reveals how he predicted the collapse of the Twin Towers in one of his novels written in 1998. He also tells the audience that science fiction was banned in China for 30 years because it was considered that it described a Capitalist future, whereas in China, the future was to be set by the Communist government. I appreciate the remarkable achievements of both of these authors, as they speak openly about their successes in this controversial genre.
At one point, I look up from my notes and observe that Ge Fei is very animated when he speaks. He uses Mandarin throughout, yet you are still very aware of his strong sense of humour. The penultimate audience question is about Utopia versus dystopia, and and he concludes that "Utopia exists in each person’s heart". Now that is an axiom worth mulling over...

Leona Bashow is a lawyer, but also having a degree in English literature and History, reads widely in her spare time, from science fiction to the classics.

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