Xu Zechen, Running Through Beijing (2008)
I borrowed this book from the library because it had been so long since I read a contemporary Chinese novel. It was the first one I found, and I must say the choice was serendipitous. It was really fresh and true to my memory of living in Beijing in the early 2000s.
The French cover attracted me in the first place, it was one of those ubiquitous old walls covered with mostly handwritten ads, that lure poor people and fresh immigrants into all sorts of scams: job offers for menial, dangerous, illegal jobs, dormitory beds in cellars, rooms to rent by the hour (with or without the service of a prostitute included), fake papers, fake certificates, contraband goods “fallen off the truck”. I have made pictures of these walls myself, because the accumulation of torn, rain-soaked papers with calligraphy and just a few words and a mobile phone number are pretty aesthetic, and whole stories go untold in a few spare words, just like Hemingway devised a tragedy with the famous six words about baby shoes.
The novel is set in a particular neighborhood of Beijing, in Zhongguancun (it’s in the original title 跑步穿过中关村), which wasn’t where I exactly live although I went there sometimes. Zhongguancun is the university district, and the novel’s characters are all in the early 20s. They are mostly lonely, adrift, far from their hometown and they want to make it in the capital and not have to come back penniless home.
As the book starts, the hero Dunhuang sets foot out of prison where he stayed for the previous 3 months for selling counterfeit ID papers. His best mate and mentor in the trade, Baoding, has not yet been released. With just a few bucks in his pockets, Dunhuang drifts through the city and meets a girl who sells pirated DVDs.
You may think it’s hard to root for small-time crooks, but Xu shows their hopes, their struggles and their humanity. He never judges them harshly, even if they don’t always play fair, when they lie and curse. I loved the energy of the characters, especially in the scenes where Dunhuang discovers that he can run across the city to deliver his pirated DVDs to his customers, instead of relying on the clogged roads full of cars and bus or on easy-to-steal bikes. Running through the city is a powerful, unusual image, because nobody does that (highlighting how much of an outsider Dunhuang still is). The city is so polluted that people don’t do intense sports outside except for old people who do slow gymnastics. It’s often too hot or too cold to run, and I suspect that Chinese people don’t like running. Anyway, I have not witnessed anybody running through Beijing.
I read this book in French, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the English translator of this novel is Eric Abrahamsen, whom I briefly met in the early 2000s in the then Beijing writing group. The language of the book is slangy and popular and full of accent (not the least the fake Beijing accent that provincial immigrants take on to appear more local). It is way cheaper than a flight ticket to Beijing and it is so completely real.