THE RELEASE of the English translation of Yu Hua's novel, Chronicle Of A Blood Merchant, could not be more timely. The story of a mainlander who sells his blood for his family's survival through various crises coincides with revelations of the bloodbank malpractice that has caused the spread of Aids and other infections over the border. Yet Yu's 1995 novel was written well before anyone knew about the critical problems with China's blood supply. 'I didn't know about the Aids and blood-selling connection back then,' Beijing-based Yu says on the telephone from California, where he is halfway through an eight-month tour of the US. 'But I did feel blood-selling was very common.' Yu, 43, is one of China's best-known novelists, short-story writers and essayists. Born in Zhejiang province, he grew up in Haiyan, where both his parents were doctors. Yu was a dentist, before taking up writing full time. 'Opposite my family home there was a blood-selling centre, so I grew up seeing people selling blood all the time, really,' he says. 'This novel is inspired by real-life events.' Aids experts in Beijing estimate that up to 30 per cent of all blood transfused in China is bought. And up to 80 per cent of men in the Aids epicentre of Hunan sold blood to support their families. Chronicle Of A Blood Merchant opens about the time of the Communist Revolution, in the Zhejiang countryside, where the novel's protagonist, Xu Sanguan, endures a series of personal and political calamities. None is directly Xu's fault. Infidelity, violence, the Great Leap Forward and the terrible famine of 1959-60, the Cultural Revolution and ill health all pile up. Each time, Xu's solution is to sell his blood, for the then princely sum of 36 yuan. Xu discovers that his first-born son, Yile, was fathered by another man. Feeling dishonoured, the normally easy-going, naive Xu rejects Yile and punishes his wife by forcing her to work hard while he lazes around. Yet, as the novel progresses, the beleaguered father with the sharp tongue and often crude self-expression is revealed as a loving figure who literally gives his lifeblood for his family's survival. 'From what he says and does, you might think he's not very nice but his heart is very good,' says Yu. 'A lot of ordinary Chinese are like that.' One reason for the contradiction is the damage to human relations in China during the decades of political upheaval, with one campaign following another and suspicions running deep between neighbours and even among families. 'China is still recovering from that,' says Yu. 'It made human relations very cold.' Making money has now replaced much of the politics but the pressures of the market aren't helping Chinese to be any nicer. 'Money has become the most important factor. Things are different again,' says Yu, who also wrote To Live (Huozhe), which was later made into a film by director Zhang Yimou and last year received the prestigious James Joyce Foundation Award. Chronicle's translator, Andrew Johnson, asks this in an afterword: in a China dominated by the market, 'What if the only capital you have is your own body?' Stylistically, Yu has come a long way since his earlier, experimental fiction. It largely has been a process of simplification. He also points out that Yu's novel is not so much about blood-selling as the triumph of Xu's humanity, signalled - like Molly Bloom's life-affirmative 'Yes' at the end of Joyce's Ulysses - by the acceptance of Yile, and his stepson's redemptive word: 'Dad'.