reading into ... Chinese fiction

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 August, 2006, 12:00am

Banquet Bug

by Yan Geling

Hyperion East, $195

Yan Geling, best known to English readers for her translated work The Lost Daughter of Happiness, likes to model her characters on real people. Her latest, Banquet Bug, was inspired by a story she heard about on television.

Set in modern-day Beijing, the tale follows Dan Dong, a laid-off factory worker who accidentally discovers he can scam exquisite dinners at publicity banquets by posing as a journalist. Over time, he not only gets away with gorging on frog uteruses, bull penises and seahorses, he also meets an array of characters, including construction workers, artists, business moguls, prostitutes, sons of cadres, other journalists and fellow impostors. And he gets sent home with 'money for your troubles' envelopes.

Many of those he meets are impressed with him. Some, such as farmer Steel Bai and foot-massage girl Old Ten, plead with him to tell their stories in the hope of addressing injustices. Torn between wanting to help and compromising his identity, Dan finds it increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. Soon, he gets the feeling someone is following him.

Readers who enjoyed The Lost Daughter of Happiness and Yan's more recent Dijiuge Guafu (Between Famines and Lovers) may find Banquet Bug more challenging. Yan has chosen a complex theme: the ills of Chinese society, with a focus on corruption. But her exhaustive treatment of scams, tricks and injustice detracts from the pain of ordinary people that should be felt.

Banquet Bug is Yan's first novel written in English. Her liberal use of American slang in dialogue - 'bitch', 'touchy', 'pops up' and 'shoots back' - can be distracting, sometimes sounding more Brooklyn than Beijing.

That said, Yan does offer insight into Chinese society: 'There's no right or wrong in China; it all depends on who you know,' says one of the characters. A real-estate developer tries to sell Dan a property that has yet to be built: 'She points near and far, her hand also much rehearsed. She is like an instructor of Marxism, teaching beautiful ideas of communism, helping you see things far beyond the way they appear now, so you can enjoy them in advance while they are still beautiful ideas.'

Yan is at her best when portraying the suffering of the underprivileged. The story of the foot-massage girl exhibits the depth and compassion displayed in The Lost Daughter of Happiness and Dijiuge Guafu. By contrasting oppression and grinding poverty with the waste and excess of mainland city life, she succeeds in laying out the grim magnitude of corruption in today's China.

Yan is a talented writer versed in developing memorable characters. Writing in a new language involves rediscovering voice and pacing. She once compared her English writing to fanchuan (gender-switching) in Peking opera. Banquet Bug suggests an author still finding her feet in this new environment.