2011 Books in Translation

The Fat Years – Chan Koonchung

The Fat Years Translated from the Chinese by Michael S. Duke

Five words from the blurb: China, truth, memory, cheerfulness, world

The Fat Years is billed as “the notorious thriller they banned in China”, but closer inspection reveals that the fictional elements of this story are minimal and I think it can be more accurately described as a controversial exposé of the political situation in China today.

The book is set in the near future and revolves around a small group of people who realise that a month has disappeared from official records and no-one can remember what happened. The general population is suspiciously cheerful, seemingly oblivious to the situation. The friends travel around the country in search of the truth behind the strange event, uncovering numerous situations previously hidden from the public.

Initially I struggled to follow the plot because there were a large number of characters and many cultural references that I was unfamiliar with, but I persevered and after about 70 pages I began to understand what was happening. The more I read, the more impressed I was. The Fat Years is thought -provoking, clever and frighteningly realistic. This book was written a few years ago, but several of Koonchung’s predictions have already come true and the line between fiction and reality is incredibly small. There were several sections that I found unbelievable, but a quick bit of Internet research revealed that the events described had in fact happened.

The Fat Years does a fantastic job of explaining China’s place in the Global economy and provides an insight into their thoughts on the rest of the world. I admit that some of the financial aspects of the book went over my head, but some of the policies for bringing China out of recession were bold enough to give me real food for thought.

Twenty-five per cent of the balance of every National Bank savings account was to be converted into vouchers for use in China only. One third of these to be spent within ninety days, and two thirds within six months.

The book also explained the population’s thoughts on the political situation of the country.

… a moderately well-off society, the people fear chaos more than they fear dictatorship.

The ending was particularly profound and I’m sure I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.

The Fat Years won’t be for everyone, but if you have an interest in Chinese ideology or the financial influence of China on the world then this as a must read.

Highly recommended.


1980s Booker Prize Classics Other Prizes

Empire of the Sun – JG Ballard

Empire Of The Sun :

Winner of 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Shortlisted for 1984 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: Shanghai, British, boy, lost, war

It is funny how we sometimes build up a picture of a book before we’ve read it, only to have all those expectations shattered once we begin. For some reason I expected Empire of the Sun to be a dense book, describing vicious fighting between the Chinese and Japanese in the Second World War. I expected it to be dark and tough going and so was therefore surprised to discover that it was actually very easy to read – the tone was quite light (at least initially) and the central character was not a soldier, but a small boy who finds himself alone on the streets of Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. In fact, the young protagonist and the simple prose could even result in this being classed as a young adult book if it were released today.

The central character, Jim, is a boy who has lived the life of luxury. His rich British parents paid for him to go to a good school and for servants to provide for his every need. But then war breaks out and Jim becomes separated from his parents. He learns to fend for himself in the abandoned mansions of Shanghai, but his situations deteriorates as the war progresses. The fact that the book is based on the author’s own experiences during WWII makes the story all the more poignant.

I loved the simple, but effective way that the surroundings were described:

Jim fidgeted in his seat as the sun pricked his skin. He could see the smallest detail of everything around him, the flakes of rust on the railway lines, the saw-teeth of the nettles beside the truck, the white soil bearing the imprint of its worn tyres. Jim counted the blue bristles around the lips of the Japanese soldier guarding them, and the globes of mucus which this bored sentry sucked in and out of his nostrils. He watched the damp stain spreading around the buttocks of one of the missionary women on the floor, and the flames that fingered the cooking pot on the station platform, reflected in the polished breeches of the stacked rifles.

My only problem with the book was the detached writing style. Jim let all the problems wash over him and failed to show any of the fear I’d expect from someone in his situation – in fact Jim seemed to enjoy seeing the planes and soldiers. This is probably a realistic way for a child to cope with war, but it meant that the book failed to have any emotional impact on me. Some people probably prefer this lighter writing style, but I like to have a strong emotional connection to the characters.

I haven’t read any other books set in China during WWII and so it was nice to learn a bit more about this lesser known piece of history. This is clearly a very important novel and there were times when I both loved and hated this book for its subtlety, but I think this is one of those books that grows on you after you’ve turned the last page. I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy the reading experience that much, but I am still thinking about Jim and I am sure that I will continue to do so for some time to come.


This is my first experience of Ballard’s writing.

Do you think I’d enjoy his other books?

2010 2011 Books in Translation Non Fiction

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother – Xinran

  Translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman

A million female foetuses are aborted and tens of thousands of baby girls are abandoned every year in China. The desire for a male heir has clashed with the Chinese one-child policy to form a society where the birth of a girl is seen as a disappointment. This book gives the painful story of the mothers who abandoned or murdered their babies.

The book consists of ten short stories, each explaining the circumstances of a different mother. I found the introduction detailing the statistics and background of the Chinese traditions very interesting, but the short stories were a disappointment. The writing contained some scenes that should have been very distressing, but the emotional connection wasn’t there and each story was too short for me to fully understand the implications of keeping the baby girl.

‘What? Isn’t that killing her?’
‘Well, I can’t help it if you must use city folk’s language so, yes, that’s what it was.’
‘And what kinds of methods did you use?’
‘Oh, all sorts! Twisting the umbilical cord round the neck, then as soon as the head came out you could strangle it. If it came out head upwards, you could make it choke on the amniotic fluid, and then the baby couldn’t even take one breath. Or you could put the baby in a basin, hold wet “horse-dung” paper over its face and in a few seconds its legs would stop kicking. And for women who’d never had a baby boy, just girl after girl after girl until the family were fed up with it, it was simple enough to chuck it in the slops pail…

It seemed as though the book was packed with one abandonment/murder after another and the repetitiveness reduced the impact of the message.

It is clearly a difficult and emotive subject, but I think this BBC news report does a better job of getting the seriousness of the situation across. Perhaps my problems with short stories are the main cause of my disappointment with this book? I would have preferred it to focus on one story and to have seen the problems faced by a family that decided to keep their a girl.


This is the first book by Xinran that I’ve read. Do you think I’d enjoy any of her earlier books?

2010 Books in Translation Other Prizes

Three Sisters – Bi Feiyu

 Winner of 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

Five words from the blurb: sisters, China, power, society, family

Three Sisters gives a fascinating insight into the life of Chinese women in the 1970s. By observing the differences between three sisters we see how the status of their birth position affects everything that happens to them.

The Three Sisters

  • Yumi uses her status as the eldest daughter to gain the respect of all those around her. This power ensures that she easily finds a favourable marriage and so has a far greater chance of achieving a happy life.
  • Yuxiu, the third sister, must use as much charm as possible to negotiate opportunities for herself.
  • Yuyang, the seventh sister, must rely on her talents alone, having none of the power that being an older sibling brings.

The book showed each sister in turn, allowing us to connect to them completely. It did a wonderful job of showing the Chinese culture, particularly by explaining their inner thoughts and fears.  The importance of ‘saving face’ was high on all their agendas and this book was great at explaining their actions in an easy to understand, but vivid way.

….everyone in town knew Yuxiu’s secret. She assumed that no one knew, but they all did. This is generally how private matters are treated. It is as if they are screened by a sheet of paper so flimsy it cannot withstand a simple poke but so sturdy everyone will avoid it. Only country folk are so uncouth and impatient that they need to get to the bottom of things at once. Townsfolk aren’t like that at all. Some things are not meant to be poked open; exposing them spoils the fun. What’s the hurry? You cannot wrap fire in paper; sooner or later it will burn through and everything will be exposed. That is more spectacular, more appealing.

I found the last section to be less interesting than the others, but it was still enjoyable. My only complaint is that the book did not end well. I don’t mean that it was sad, just that it was abrupt and didn’t come to any logical conclusions. I would have liked to see all three sisters mentioned on the final pages, not just a slightly odd scene containing only the youngest. This is a minor quibble though. It is a beautifully written book and I’m sure it will be loved by many people.

As an introduction to Chinese literature, this is an ideal choice. It is well paced and contains a depth of emotion. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in Chinese literature, but I think the focus on family relationships will mean that it will be appreciated by women more than men.

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Other Prizes

Wolf Totem – Jiang Rong

 Winner 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt

I bought a copy of Wolf Totem after I met The Book Whisperer and she raved about it. It is her favourite book of all time and as I love books set in Asia I decided to give it a try.

Wolf Totem is set on the Mongolian grasslands and describes the constant battle that the nomads have with the wolves that live there. The relationship the people have with the wolves is confused when Chen Zhen, an intellectual from Beijing, captures a wolf cub and starts to raise it. The book is based on the real life events of the author, who answered Chairman Mao’s 1969 call for city dwellers to experience life in the mountains.

This book goes some way to explaining what life was like for the Mongolian nomads, but it concentrates on the difficulties that wolves brought to their lives. We witness packs of wolves massacring their animals and the nomad’s attempts to kill the wolves. It was fascinating to learn about the behaviour of wolves, but I suspect the graphic nature of the hunts will be too much for some.

I enjoyed the excitement of the chase, but by the half way stage I began to tire of the endless battle between man and wolf. This book is 500+ pages long and after a while one wolf hunt became much like all the others. I longed to learn about other aspects of life in the grasslands and perhaps witness some of the human relationships.

I also felt that the writing quality was that of great fiction, not literature. There was no depth or poetry to the language – it was simply there to inform.

These things are never easy for the Mongols. Gasmai only has the one son, and still she didn’t stop him from grabbing a wolf’s tail or crawling into a den. The old Chinese saying ‘Don’t fight wolves if you’re unwilling to sacrifice your son’ must have come from the grassland. Don’t forget, the Mongols ruled China for nearly a century. I used to think it meant using your son as wolf bait, believe it or not. Now I realize it means letting your son risk crawling into a wolf’s den to get the cubs. Only a youngster could handle a tunnel this deep and narrow.

I did learn a lot of interesting facts about the wolves and am pleased I read the book, but I wish it had been slightly shorter.

Recommended to anyone who’d like to know more about wolves, in all their gruesome glory.

2010 Booker Prize Books in Translation

The Boat to Redemption – Su Tong

 Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2009

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt

The Boat to Redemption focuses on the boat people of a Chinese River. The central character is Dongliang, who was once the revered grandson of a revolutionary martyr, but when his ancestry is questioned his life quickly deteriorates.

The main theme of the book is the relationship between Dongliang and his father. It is essentially a coming of age story showing how hard it is to adjust to adulthood, but although it is a very Chinese novel, similar in style to Brothers, the themes of love, heartache and fear are universal.

The book was interesting at the beginning, but the pace was quite slow. It picked up at is progressed and by the half way stage I was captivated – the characters were fascinating and so different from those in Western novels as their superstitions and respect for authority add a different dimension to their problems.

I don’t have a big knowledge of Chinese culture and so I felt that some things went over my head – there were several points where there appeared to be a wise saying, but it didn’t translate well into English. This wasn’t because of a translation problem (I think Howard Goldblatt did a great job) but because there wasn’t an equivalent phrase in English.

‘If your mother finds you, then you’ll be a drowned ghost too, with moss growing all over your body.’

As with many other Chinese novels there was an obsession with genitalia in this book. I found that some of the scenes put me off my food for a few hours, but there was no explicit sex or extreme violence, so most people will cringe rather than be offended.

I’m sure that this book would be even more impressive if read in the Chinese, but even with a limited knowledge of the culture there is still a lot to enjoy.

Recommended to fans of Chinese literature.