Graphic Novels Recap

I went on a graphic novel reading spree, because it had been much too long, and I will talk a little about them all here in one post, at the risk that you’ll have to scroll to the bottom of the Internet!

I started with La Fille dans l’Ecran (The Girl inside the Screen), a graphic novel where two young women meet online and develop a long distance relationships, first as acquaintances, then as friends, and later as… more? (It’s no big spoiler, they kiss on the cover!) Coline is a lonely 22yo, whose panic attacks have forced to drop out of university and to live with her grandparents in the country. She wants to write and draw a children book but she’s too shy to actually complete the project and hit “submit”. Marley is a bit older, she works as a barista in Montreal, but her passion was photography, until her boyfriend convinced her to prioritize serious stuff and earning money. Both women, who meet online entirely by chance, encourage each other through emails, texts and chats to flourish, express their true selves through their art and not to hide anymore.

The special thing about this graphic novel is that it is written and drawn by two young women, who are friends (and nothing more, apparently!). The left page of the book is the view from Coline, drawn by Manon Devault in black and grey nuances, and the right page is for Marley, drawn by Lou Lubie in colors. I feared that it would be a bit artificial and stilted, but it works amazingly!

The second graphic novel is Formose, by Li-Chin Lin. It deals with Taiwan identity and I read its 250 pages all in one setting at the library of the Quai Branly museum. The author tries to explain how Taiwanese local identity has been suppressed in favor of a nationalistic, anti Communist propaganda for 50 years, and how she discovered the truth and the courage to speak a different language and a different world view. Taiwan holds a special place in my heart so I was naturally drawn to this graphic memoir, but I don’t think it would work as a primer, although the author takes care to give information about the geopolitical situation and the history. The book is drawn with a pencil and quite free, evocative of a naive manga style. The most interesting part is how kids internalized the propaganda and lived amidst different cultures seamlessly, but not without inner contradictions and struggles (the grandparents having lived the Japanese occupation, the mother speaking in Hakka / Hokkien, the teachers allowing only Mandarin Chinese…).

The third graphic novel I tried to wolf down is Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds, her very own interpretation of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Now, since I’m not British I have just a perfunctory knowledge of Dickens version (my fault, I know), so I didn’t really appreciate the parallels, which must have robbed me of much of the fun. After all, Posy Simmonds is all about adapting classics to modern British ways. Perhaps because of this, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Gemma Bovery or Tamara Drewe. Cassandra is a grumpy and unlikable Scrooge of modern times, and her evolution is quite subtle and witty. This book is not one you can read in a single sitting like the previous I mentioned, because there’s a lot of texts and lots of tiny details in the delicate drawings.

Three graphic novels by women, and all very different in style and story. Which one would tempt you?

The One with the Chinese Shoeshiner

Chi Li, Une ville à soi (Chinese 2000, French 2018)

Is there a publisher out there who wants to translate this book in English? It’s great, I can assure you, it’s a real shame that it’s only available in French (and in its original Mandarin, of course).

English reader, I’m going to frustrate you, I know, but I still want to talk about it. The book is rather a novella than a big novel, as it focuses on two women. They are adults, they have lives and backgrounds and each their own set of problems, but we witness a budding friendship, independently from men, completely foreign to the US-centric theme of working mums vs. SAHM, etc. and it’s a rather refreshing.

Mijie is a mature widow who owns a small shoe-shining shop in the historic center of Wuhan. She has earned a respectable reputation as a strong woman and she makes money, but she still lives with her very old mother in law in the back rooms of her shop. Fengchun is a fashionable younger woman (late 20s/early 30s?), married with a small child, whose husband has neglected her. As a revenge, Fengchun has decided to humiliate him publicly by getting a lowly job in Mijie’s shop. But it doesn’t work out the way she thought as her husband and her inlaws don’t come begging her to stop, and she is rather stuck in this shop, putting Mijie’s earnest business into an awkward position. Mijie doesn’t know if she must intervene, keep Fengchun or dismiss her.

The book is set in the huge city of Wuhan (8 million people and counting), that manages to come out in the story as a nice, comfy home, not a sprawling, anonymous mega-city. Chi Li is born in this region and the book is like a love letter to the city of Wuhan and to its people, a little gruff and sharp-tongued but with a proverbial heart of gold.

The translator has clearly made the choice of highlighting the feminism and the home/city theme with the French title : A town of one’s own, in reference to Virginia Woolf, while the Chinese title was simply “Her town”.

The story is both simple and vast, both uniquely Chinese and universal. I feared that the mundane, realist side would veer into pathos and gloom, but I felt that the sense of friendship saved the day. It seemed a bit naive and clumsy in writing at first (or is it the translation?), but at about a third of the book the story really finds its pace, takes off until the end.

The One with the Chinese Nightmare

Ma Jian, China Dream (2019)

I’ve discovered Ma Jian with Red Dust, published in 2001. I read several of his other books, which are all banned in China, before this blog existed, and I have not returned to him since. It was long overdue, although Ma Jian’s books are not treading on thin ice with political topics and they can be a rough ride!

The book title is Ma Jian’s take on President Xi Jinping’s official China Dream, a heavily-Photoshopped propaganda about Chinese’s bright future. Ma Jian’s China Dream, on the contrary, is grotesque and full of gore and sex and violence. The dream is heavily influenced by repressed memory of the Cultural revolution, which was more like a civil war with heavy artillery and brutal executions than a quiet battle of ideas between Communist factions.

In the book, Ma Daode is a successful small town bureaucrat, in charge of the local China Dream bureau. His success is measured in the number of mistresses he has and the amount of bribes he receives. Bureaucrats are all competing to propose the best idea to apply the China Dream slogan in their city. His own idea is to develop a chip to implant in people’s brain in order to erase private dreams and also old bad memories. He probably would be the first customer for his own medicine, since his mind is hijacked by irrepressible memories of his youth during the Cultural revolution. The Cultural revolution also saw youth groups compete to be the most faithful to Mao ideology, only they did it with firearms, hand grenades and knives.

I don’t want to spoil anything for you guys, but let’s suffice to say that Ma Daode was as much a victim as a perpetrator of the Cultural revolution, and we can interpret his lust for power and sex as a way to suppress emotions and memories.

The result is hallucinatory and harrowing, but memorable. You can imagine Ma Jian’s large grin as he takes “self-sabotage” to a whole new level.

The One with Hong Kong in Reverse

Chan Ho-Kei, The Borrowed (Original Chinese: 13.67; published 2014)

I can’t remember who put me on the track of this novel, but I’m really grateful! I was in the mood for more books set in Hong Kong after finishing The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam and I promptly took this one which I had bought in a French translation in September of last year.

It was a slow start, because I couldn’t really take the story seriously. The book is told in six sections in reverse chronological order, and the first one (which would be the last one) is not the best story in the book. It opens with a retired detective on his death bed, who contributes (I won’t spoil it so bear with me for a convoluted explanation) to the elucidation of a locked-room mystery. Let’s just say it was weird, to the point where I wondered if it wasn’t really a kind of joke!

But the remaining five stories were a lot better, and were also more deeply set in Hong Kong. From 2013 we jump back to 2003 with the murder of a canto-pop starlet who happens to work for one triad boss. This could escalate into a full-blown triad confrontation, with the old generation being threatened by new style mainland thugs. From 2003 we jump back to the summer of 1997, during the very last days of British rule before the Handover and the economic crisis. On the very same day, two mainland thugs enter the territory, someone attacks an open-air market by throwing acid on passers-by and a dangerous triad boss escapes from prison during a transfer to the hospital. From 1997 we go back to 1989 during the Tiananmen movement in Beijing, and that presents a classic face-off à la JohnWoo. Then back to 1977, with a British cop from the ICAC (Independent Commission Anti-Corruption) had his kids kidnapped, while the pervasive corruption among policemen is exposed, resulting in dozens of policemen storming the ICAC and punching members. The last chapter takes place in 1967, a moment of huge tension in Hong Kong at the heyday of the Cultural revolution, with violent local unrest expecting the Communist mainland troops to invade the British territory.

The geographical and historical setting is precise and true to life, and the atmosphere is quite local. It’s interesting to see the evolution of the police force, who is at first barely tolerated by the population and seen as quite as corrupt as the triad thugs, until they got rid of the bad elements and got the trust of the people back. After 1997 and the return to China, the police are very much on the brink again. The plot of each story is clever and there are some twists I didn’t see coming. It reminded me of classic Hong Kong action movies I watched in the 1990s and early 2000s, while I was living in Hong Kong, like A Better Tomorrow, Infernal Affairs, The Killer, Hard Boiled… If only for the nostalgia factor, I loved it!

The One with the Lovers in Dacron Shirts

Lu Yao, Life (Chinese 1982, English 2019 via Amazon Crossing)

This Chinese novel that had a huge success upon original publication in the 1980s gives a rare window into a period of China that is long gone. The China of Life is a mostly rural country where peasants were still organized in labor brigades, where peasants haven’t migrated to cities to work in factories, where brushing one’s teeth is still a disputed modern habit, and where wearing a shirt in Dacron (a kind of polyester) is clearly a status symbol for the up and coming youth. I chose this book for the nostalgia factor and I got plenty of it!

I can understand why this book was a success back then. It still has Maoist themes inherited from the Cultural Revolution, like the golden-hearted peasants (vs. the more morally ambiguous or downright petit bourgeois city folks), the pure, selfless heroin from the land, and the fact that corruption is only the fact of one deviant local cadre and is swiftly corrected by all party authorities once they’re made aware of it. But we see that it is on the brink of a new era, where young people want to date whomever they want and choose their careers, where love is more important than revolution and where people’s lives are not governed by political slogans (apart from hygiene principles, there are little to no proselytizing in the novel). The thrill of the big city is already fascinating to the main character and this is the place where the future of China lies. This story is definitely progress from the stilted socialist novels that were produced before, and from the traditional novels where jilted lovers commit suicide en masse and it must have felt like a breath of fresh air. To 21C Western audience though, it feels a bit tame beyond the exotic factor (the traditional wedding ceremony was interesting).

I really liked the character of Qiaozhen, the young peasant woman who falls in love with a young graduate, Gao Jialin, who has higher ambitions than just teaching in a backwater village. Gao Jialin is the hero but a harder character to like, as he’s torn between ambitions and feelings, and his fate is often determined by outside forces rather than by himself. To be fair, the merit of the book is probably more historical than literary, but it was an enjoyable read nonetheless (completing half of my April #Unreadshelf Challenge).

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The One from Mao to Mettle

Gao Anhua, To the Edge of the Sky: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Suffering, and the Strength of Human Courage (2000)

I finished this memoir two days ago and the verdict is still undecided. Undecided but not in a positive way. There were many times when I wanted to throw the book across the room (except it’s on my kindle and I don’t want to endanger the dozens perfectly great books stored alongside this one). But I plodded on, because I took pity on all the sufferings that this woman went through.

Ok, I guess that I should first take a few steps back. This book may be perfectly fine for people who have a basic knowledge of the recent history of China, from 1949 until the early 1990s. The Mao dictatorship, the Communist regime, the different repression campaigns culminating with the Cultural revolution, if you want to know what it feels like to be a girl born with the new regime in 1949, be ready to take a big box of Kleenex and work your way through it (you only need to read the long subtitle to get the idea).

But you might also have read another memoir like this one and in that case the idea is different. You might know Wild Swans by Jun Chang (that spans longer and stops in 1978), or Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie. These memoirs actually belong to a Chinese “literary” genre: the scar literature, which was tolerated for a short period in China (1977-1979), characterized by the emotional account of what people had endured, but flourished later in the West. You just need to see the Goodreads list of the hundred books available in English to realize that Gao Anhua’s fate was sadly not unique.

Now, the value of this memoir is obvious if you know that a fair amount of nostalgia for the Maoist days is present among some ageing Chinese people (many pages of Gao Anhua’s account will nip this in the bud), and a fair amount of de-politicization and negation of past traumatic events in the recent Chinese past is also going on right now in China. But the writers of these memoirs have exiled themselves to the West and are publishing in the West mainly for Western audiences, so the people who would most benefit from reading about the human cost of a Chinese totalitarian regime and political brainwashing are very likely not reading it.

As a Westerner, and as a person who has middle-aged Chinese friends and has lived in China, what sprung to my attention was what was left out of Gao’s story. In short, she was very privileged while growing up (which makes her come out as a brat more than once in the first part of the book), because her parents ranked high in the Communist hierarchy in the Nanjing area; and although they died young, when Gao was just 11, she was extremely well-connected and could count on powerful family friends and allies when political purges threatened her. She managed to not be sent to the countryside like most young people and could enter the Communist army. So her account is in no way what ordinary people went through. Strangely enough, the worst of her personal troubles came later in life, after the end of the Cultural revolution and Mao’s death, when China was opening up to the first foreign investors and joint-ventures. She also addresses Tian An Men events and her marriage to a British man, who helped her to get a visa out of the country, with a rare candor.

This memoir gave me much food for thought and reminded me of tidbits of personal confessions that some people have told me, but I would certainly not recommend it as the main source of information for the turbulent Chinese past.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

The One with the Taiwan Bike Lost in the Jungle

Wu Ming Yi, The Stolen Bicycle (Origin. Chinese 2015; English 2017)

You guys, this book… I’m not sure I should brag or be ashamed, but it took me 5 months to read it, and I have no idea what I read most of the time.

I am no fan of bicycles (I don’t even know the technical words in English or French for the different parts of a bike – and I didn’t learn), but I have a personal connection to Taiwan that made me want to read that book as soon as I spotted it on Netgalley. It’s rare enough to find a Taiwanese novel, but when it’s a book that has collected so many literary awards in its home country, it doesn’t quite matter if it’s over 400 pages… (or does it?)

Highbrow it is, definitely, and deep, and experimental, and full of historical references that I was only vaguely aware of, so… It’s not my usual cup of tea, but I’m glad I tried it.

At first glance the story seems pretty straightforward… at least at the beginning. As his ageing mother is sent to hospital (presumably for her final days) and his siblings gather around to take care of her, the narrator wants to track his father and his bicycle, who both disappeared 20 years ago. The man is convinced that if he’s able to find the bicycle, he’ll understand the truth about his father.

Now, it’s only one story of this book, where many other characters and bikes and stories are intertwined. The bikes are just a tool to show how Taiwan was influenced by Japanese technology (the small island being colonized by Japan from 1895 to 1945), and how Taiwanese people were part of the WW2 conflict on the Japanese side. The island was bombed by the US, the men were conscripted into the Japanese armies (but at lesser ranks than “real” Japanese). Part of the book is set in the Malaysian jungles where a lot of fighting took place, and a lot of gruelling sufferings and deaths. Not only men did die, but also nature and animals, and the book shifts its focus towards elephants (another surprising turn), in a deeply moving way. Elephants were used and abused as war transports, and then some found their way into zoos.

Some parts of the book are really heartbreaking. Wu Ming-Yi is nostalgic, but his emotions show through mundane details of fixing a bike in the proper way, or showing up at a café to meet someone who might have an ancient bike. So if you’re tempted by an adventurous, unexpected read out of your usual range, look to further.

The One with Fake DVDs in Beijing

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.

The One with the Shenzhen Chicks

Lijia Zhang, Lotus, 2017

Thanks to the publisher Henry Holt and Netgalley for sending me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

The book is set in China’s fastest developing industrial city of the South, Shenzhen, between Canton and Hong Kong, in the early 2000s, which is exactly the time I lived there (in Hong Kong and Beijing). Shenzhen had the reputation of an eldorado, a place where fortunes could be made, a place where laws didn’t really apply. Millions of young people from the countryside, destitute and without much opportunity at home, were attracted to Shenzhen with the dream of making it in the big city, only to find themselves stuck in low-paying jobs akin to slavery (living in dorms, locked-up in dangerous, unsanitary workshops). Many young women saw in prostitution an easy way out, a way to send more money back home too. They are the infamous ji (hens/chicks).

Lotus is one of those many girls working in “massage parlors”. It’s notable that the novel bears her name as if to focus on her personal history and her character, while the Chinese government prefers turning a blind eye to these girls, whose business is strongly linked to corruption and to the “entertainment” industry, or periodically cracking down on the girls without giving them any other perspective. To male businessmen who frequent those girls, it doesn’t really matter who they are.

It is a novel full of social criticism, almost a documentary disguised as a novel, but the main characters, Lotus the prostitute and Bing, the photographer with a political conscience, are not entirely clichés. Lotus is not entirely an innocent victim, and the importance of her Buddhist faith in her trajectory is an interesting, new angle, because the rest of her background story is not fully original. Bing is a middle-aged man torn between ambition and his youth’s political idealism. Bing was in Beijing in June 1989, escaping the military crackdown only because his wife gave birth of their daughter. Bing’s wife is ambitious enough for them both, they have divorced because of her manipulative tricks and because Bing’s journalistic immersion into the world of low-class prostitutes was shocking and offensive, but now that he has won prizes and recognition for his work, she’s willing to reconnect, not only for herself but for their 12-year-old spoilt daughter. Bing’s motivation, a sort of romantic idealism without any apparent sexual attraction, is not quite explored in the book.

I was bracing for a tale of misery and a tragedy at the end, or a kind of unrealistic happy end à la Pretty Woman, but the ending was more subtle than that, even if it doesn’t tie every bow nicely. The book is rather straightforward in its writing and there are some language clichés that feel a bit annoying, but it’s worthwhile to get past these weaknesses to learn more about these women.

The One with Chinese Millenials in Nepal

vent-1-768x556Golo Zhao & Bao Jingjing, Au gré du Vent (French 2016) / Up in the Wind (China, 2014)

I know there’s no sense in trying to finish every book started before New Year’s eve (I’ve given up) and I know that there’s no more sense in trying to finish every book post I’ve started drafting in here… but I’m still trying. It feels good to start the year with a clean WordPress slate, and by Dec. 20 I still have the impression that I can meet this goal.

Just for the sake of trying, I want to mention an intriguing graphic novel I read a while ago, a movie tie-in apparently (I’m not clear which one came first because I haven’t seen the movie anyway), and a Chinese manga (a.k.a manhua), a genre I’ve rarely tried.

“Up in the Wind” is the story of two Chinese people traveling to Nepal, the land of happiness. But it’s not a tourist trip in the general sense, because they haven’t chosen the trip nor the destination. Yumeng, a young Chinese woman who works as a journalist in the very competitive and superficial environment of a lifestyle magazine in Beijing (or is it Shanghai?) has been sent to Nepal to write a travel report on why Nepal’s happiness index is so high despite poverty. She had hoped to be assigned to Tuscany and feels short-changed. An ambitious girl and a social climber, she still hopes that this trip and her article will land her a big professional success, but local difficulties of Nepal derail her plans. Instead, she gets a self-awakening of sorts, when she has to face who she is, her fears and her doubts.

Alongside Yumeng is a lanky young man, Wang Can, who is essentially a spoilt, arrogant rich kid, who has to travel to Nepal if he ever wants to come back into his father’s good graces after he jilted his bride-to-be at the altar.

The manhua was quite weird. On the one hand, you have the frustrations of this ambitious young woman who is often humiliated by richer and higher-ups (her boss in the big city says to her: “It’s your job to write as if you’re living it up on 25k a month, when you are just a 2k-earning nobody.” As conventional stories go, she has this coming-of-age experience of discovering deeper meaning beyond money and success, especially at the end of the book when she fails to meet her deadline and loses her job.

On the other hand, you have a conventional romantic comedy storyline where Yumeng falls for Wang Can after much bickering and many disputes. But not for one instant did I believe that those two would make a durable couple, nor did I believe that the change undergone by Wang Can would be more than superficial and short-lived. The ending was quite opened and vague, and added to the uneasiness.

On one hand, it wants to show Nepal as a more spiritual place where people are friendlier and have deeper relationships, but on the other hand we only see clichés about Nepal and the story tells more about Chinese millenials than about Nepalese people.

I liked very much the design and colors by Golo Zhao. The landscapes especially are breathtaking, even if it’s only a backdrop. I wonder which storyline the author Bao Jingjing wanted to push forward and how much of this mixup is due to editing and formatting for the big screen. It was an interesting, if not totally convincing reading experience.