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Reviewed by:
  • Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and His Fictional World
  • Howard Goldblatt (bio)
Yiyan Wang . Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and His Fictional World. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. x, 318 pp. Hardcover $97.00, ISBN 10:0-415-32675-3.

First off, full disclosure (please bear with me): In 1989 or 1990, on the recommendation of Hualing Nie, I was approached by Mobil Oil to translate into English Jia Pingwa's novel Fuzao, winner of that year's Pegasus Prize for Literature. Since I list the translation and the prize on my curriculum vitae, I ought to say a bit about both. I did most of the work on what would be published (by LSU Press in 1991) as Turbulence in a bayside apartment at Shaw College, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. All in all, while I loved the setting, I did not particularly enjoy the work, finding much of the novel tedious (it's mainly about post-Cultural Revolution reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s), containing more head-scratching localisms than I was used to. Thanks to some colleagues at the university and friends elsewhere, most of the latter were made clear to me; the remainder were explained via mail by the author, who was, as a result, convinced that I did not know Chinese (about that more later). Back in the United States I finished the translation and sent it off. Published reviews were mixed.

The Pegasus Prize, awarded by Mobil Oil (no longer, I believe), was given to a novel selected by the host country (in this case a committee of writer-officials and others under the aegis of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences), said country [End Page 517] being determined by Mobil; 1989 was China's year. To read my curriculum vitae, you might assume that my translation won a prize; it did not.

Once the novel was published, Mobil invited Jia and his wife to the United States for a book tour, mainly in New York and Washington DC. I was invited to accompany the party (and quite a "party" it was!). Jia's first real stop was Boulder, Colorado, where he and his wife stayed with me for a few days. I had trouble understanding his accented Chinese, I was given a fine piece of his calligraphy, he did well at several public events, and he struck me as exceedingly countrified. Luminaries like Harrison Salisbury (of the New York Times) and Alan Cheuse (NPR book critic) were major promoters of Jia and his novel, a paperback edition of which has recently appeared from Grove Press.

Some years later, in my role as general editor of the University of Hawai'i Press series, the press's acquisitions editor, and my dear friend, Sharon Yamamoto, sent me a manuscript for consideration. It was Jia's 1990 novel Feidu in a translation by a People's Republic of China citizen who was teaching in the English department of a Texas university. I'd heard of the novel, over which a firestorm of controversy had erupted in China, owing mainly to the hot, steamy (male fantasized, some would say) sex. The translation, to our chagrin, was one baby step above unreadable. Knowing, however, that Feidu would be a good addition to our series, Sharon and I tried working on the translation (agony), asked the translator to revise (hopeless), and demanded that he find a collaborator, a native speaker of English (unworkable). We learned that the translator had flown to Xi'an, presented himself at Jia's door, and asked for permission to translate, since, as everyone knows, "only a Chinese can adequately translate a Chinese novel," an argument that Jia accepted, lock, stock, and barrel. That decision cost him the chance of seeing his novel appear in English-so far, at least (it is available in French), since the translator apparently gave up in the end.

Now that I've come clean, let's see what Wang has done with her study of Jia's fiction (plus a sort of add-on chapter dealing with his "poetry, essays and textual personality"), which began as a Ph.D. dissertation (and retains some of the characteristics...


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