Such Is This [email protected]

Mark O'Neill
Such Is This [email protected]
by Hu Fayun (translated by A. E. Clark)
Ragged Banner Press

This is a remarkable novel about the pain and grief of Chinese intellectuals at the dawning of the 21st century and how the country has been transformed by the internet.

The book was published in Chinese in 2006 to widespread critical acclaim. But its main theme - the moral dilemmas that result from control of information in an authoritarian society - proved too sensitive.

The General Administration of Press and Publications condemned the book and disrupted its distribution and a planned translation into English was abandoned.

This first translation by A. E. Clark was a monumental undertaking in many ways.

The story begins with a widow in her 40s, Ru Yan, who lives in an unnamed city in northern China and whose son has just left to study in France, leaving her with gifts of a little dog and a personal computer.

For the first time, she discovers the internet, which allows her to talk with her son via video link, communicate with other people, and express her views in a way she has never been able to before.

She joins a forum named 'Empty Nest' for parents whose children have gone abroad. There she befriends intellectuals whose lives have been devastated by the Cultural Revolution and party purges.

Then two dramatic strands develop - a romance with Liang Jinsheng, a widower and vice-mayor of their city, and a gradual realisation that a mysterious disease is killing people across China.

It is the beginning of the severe acute respiratory syndrome - Sars, a form of bacterial pneumonia.

In the early months of the epidemic, in the winter of 2002, the government conceals the existence of the disease from its people and the World Health Organisation; the internet is the only public forum where it is mentioned.

Ru and Liang's relationship intensifies and they agree to marry.

While Liang becomes responsible for combating the epidemic in the city, Ru posts online essays about the disease, including a description of how security guards club to death pet dogs on the street.

The essays are picked up by bloggers in China and abroad but earn her virulent abuse from others for revealing 'secret information'.

They also help a love rival persuade Liang that he is putting a promising career at risk by seeing Ru; he abandons her abruptly, moves to another city and sets up home with the rival.

The text is dense and detailed, with rich descriptions of the lives and histories of the characters. Clark needs more than 400 footnotes, to explain the references to Chinese history and politics.

Among its major themes are the suffering of intellectuals and the Faustian bargains which many strike to survive in today's China.