Speaking Volumes: East of the Sun

(Published in the Business Standard, September 2014) When the Chinese writer Yu Hua was a child, books were rare commodities; he tells Pankaj Mishra in an interview of how they would circulate in mutilated form during the years of the Cultural Revolution. He read the middle of a book once without knowing its author or title, learning later that it was a torn copy of a Guy de Maupassant novel. Every time a new Haruki Murakami novel is published, that story about Yu Hua seems like an exact parable of the way in which most Indians today read Japanese and Chinese authors. Murakami is one of the few who does outrageously well in translation. But for all the recent Indian fascination with both the Japan and China economies, most Indians read Murakami in isolation, his works torn out of the Asian context and the map of writers around him. For many Indians, Japan and China signal a kind of modernity, a promise of growth, development and technology—but Murakami excepted, Indian readers don’t yet seem interested in following the parallel economy of Asian ideas, the marketplace of arguments, dissents and their equally strenuous battles over history.  China and Japan have highly evolved publishing industries, and the bestseller lists in both countries for the last decade are revealing. Chinese bestseller lists are far stronger on translations from other countries, displaying an eclectic curiosity that often favours classics from the past. In 2012, for instance, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in The Time of Cholera, Henry Kissinger’s On China and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom were all on the bestseller lists—but so was a quirkier choice, Peter Hesseler’s River Town. The same pattern shows up in 2014: translations of Alice Munro’s Dear Life, Philip K Dick’s short stories, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and JK Rowling’s Cuckoo Calling are prominent sellers, but so are two older classics—Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. When pop fiction and teen romances took off in the 1990s, some China literary experts feared (the age-old complaint) that they would kill literary fiction. In newspaper articles, professors like Tao Dongfeng criticized pop icons like Han Han and Guo Jingming, saying that writers had turned into “entertainment idols”. But some of China’s most successful popular writers also included the enigmatic and reclusive Annie Baby, whose novels started by chronicling the alienation and aimlessness of the balinghou—the generation born after the 1980s, many of them single children without siblings. Wang Shuzen’s military novels were as popular as many much lighter and less demanding reads, as was Dangnian Mingyue’s long historical series, Those Things of the Ming Dynasty. Alongside the inevitable speeches by Deng Xiaoping and other leaders, it was also possible for TV hosts like Chai Jing—revered for her brave coverage of the SARS outbreak—to have a bestseller with her book Kanjian (Insight). Japan’s market has an enormous amount of flexibility built in to the publishing system. The popularity of bunkobon—small-format paperbacks often splintered off the hardback versions, designed to be affordable and presumably also disposable—is only matched by the sophistication of the industry that produces the many comics lumped under the heading of manga. Doujinshi manga, or fan-fiction versions of popular comics, is almost a separate industry in itself. Japanese bestseller lists often include Western books, but as with China, the Japanese readership is not predictable in its tastes. The Harry Potter series was a massive success, but analysing a cluster of bestsellers, Robin Birtle wrote that new authors “have to contend with contemporary giants such as Patricia Cornwall and Michael Connelly, but also a panoply of ghosts of authors past”, such as LM Montgomery and Aldous Huxley. In 2013, Japan’s bestseller lists featured Murakami running far ahead of the rest of the pack. But among the year’s other successes, the rise of nationalist sentiment and rightwing authors was noticeable: Naoki Hyakuta’s The Man Who Was Called A Pirate, for one. In a report in the Asahi Shimbum, Ira Ishida was quoted calling similar books “nationalist entertainment”: “Perhaps readers are shifting more to the right in the way they think.” In his interview with Mishra, Yu Hua had talked of another problem: “Younger writers don’t like to see books that reveal the dark side of China; they live very comfortable lives; they don’t believe in the dark side of China; they are not even aware of the hundreds of millions of people still living in extreme poverty.” But there are more writers like Yu Hua these days, and not all of the bubblegum fiction is that effervescent in either Japan or China. Two of Japan’s biggest hits last year were Jun Ikeido’s The Lost Generation Strikes Back—fast-paced, cynical fiction about corporate greed and skullduggery among bankers–while Shino Sakuragi’s Hotel Royal told the stories of disaparate couples in a love hotel outside Hokkaido. And as with the borrowed classics, the Japanese taste for reading their own classics is evident—Kenzaburo Oe, Akatagawa, and in these times of dissatisfaction and rising nationalism, Yukio Mishima, are also highly popular authors. In comparison to the sophistication and variety of Japan and China’s popular fiction market—both countries cover everything from romance to horror, crime, fantasy, dark fantasy and erotica in more detail and with more finesse than our present-day pulp fiction heroes do—India is still an emerging market. We might be entertained—and we might also be usefully unsettled—if we read eastwards rather than westwards for a change.





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