The east is green
Mark O'Neill, Shanghai
It is 10,000km from Dublin to Shanghai but, for two hours last Sunday, they were one and the same. To celebrate 'Bloomsday', 60 people crowded into M on the Bund to listen to readings, in English and Chinese, of James Joyce's Ulysses. The novel traces the odyssey of Leopold Bloom for 24 hours in Dublin on June 16, 1904.
'As Albert Einstein was to science, so James Joyce was to literature,' said Li Weiping , professor of English language and literature at the Shanghai International Studies University. 'He was the most influential writer of the 20th century.
'I first came to know of Joyce 25 years ago. I made a painstaking effort to study. I read Ulysses twice. Each time, it took me three months,' he said, to loud applause from the audience. They must have been wondering how a Chinese had managed to complete an 800-page book that many native English speakers could not force themselves to finish, much less understand.
Professor Li is one of China's leading scholars on Joyce, having published one book and 10 articles on his works, in addition to six other books on English literature. At least 3,000 students in more than 20 universities in China had read Ulysses in English, he said, while tens of thousands had read it in one of two Chinese translations published in the 1990s. He has postgraduate students doing dissertations on Ulysses, on the psychoanalysis of Dubliners and even on Finnegan's Wake, which defeats even more native English speakers than Ulysses. 'It was written for readers with insomnia, and to keep critics busy for 300 years,' Professor Li joked.
'Thanks to Joyce, Dublin has become a universal place,' he said. Professor Li also praised the writer's perseverance, in the midst of poverty and hardship. 'Ulysses took him 20,000 hours to write. That is eight hours a day for seven days a week, between 1914 and 1922.'
Professor Li's speech was music to the ears of the Irish community in Shanghai, which is fighting, with other foreign countries, for the attention and the pocket books of the city's public.
After its soccer team, music and dance troupes, the country is best known for its writers, of whom four have won the Nobel Prize for literature - George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney.
Shaw, who stayed at Shanghai's Peace Hotel in the 1930s, is the best known in China, because his works have been the most widely taught.
Now Joyce is catching up.
But those planning to read him should remember what he once told an interviewer: 'The only demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.'