This cheerful Chinese masterpiece shows: happiness was not determined by politics, but by the environment (•••••)

This cheerful Chinese masterpiece shows: happiness was not determined by politics, but by the environment (•••••)

Towards the end of Notes from a theorist the narrator asks character C a simple question: ‘Am I you?’ As a reader, you have already wondered: whether the story of author Shi Tiesheng, who became partially paralyzed at the age of 21 and ended up in a wheelchair, overlaps a lot with that of ‘disabled C’, one of the people whose difficult search for love we follow in this impressive book.

But it is also a question that disappeared from view while reading this voluminous psychological novel, in which Shi weaves together the stories of more than a dozen characters. From the start, a narrative ‘I’ is present, who vividly describes the characters, while also occasionally pointing out that all this action is taking place in his head. The narrator, whose date of birth in 1951 corresponds to that of Shi himself, takes us along in his search for stability, for authenticity in a confusing world, in which we are shaped as much by the fleeting memories of our own experiences as by our memories of others. These have become part of our lives through our attempts to understand them. It is not a sum but a jumble.

For Shi, this search for stability has everything to do with love. In his magnum opus, which was released in Chinese in 1999 and has now been translated into Dutch, every story is a love story. Think Love, Actually – the well-known British romantic comedy in which nine love stories intertwine – but set in communist China from the 1950s to the 1980s. Much more tragic: a time when a ‘wrong’ family background or a political campaign could take your grandmother, father or daughter away, and when your loved one could disappear behind bars for twenty years due to political exile. Shi repeatedly brings those overwhelming politics back to concrete individuals and their desire for love, sex, understanding and respect. Can class background make love wrong? Can disability do that?

Socially critical tradition

A number of famous Chinese novels have already been published in Dutch about the Cultural Revolution and its impact. Take the work of Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, or that of Yu Hua, a good friend of Shi. Notes from a theorist stands out from that list as a novel in which emotional life is central. According to translator Mark Leenhouts, who made this excellent translation from Chinese, Chinese novels from this generation of authors often focus more on providing social criticism than on exploring their characters in depth. This fits in with the tradition of the committed Chinese novel with a lot of reflection, but makes it difficult for foreign readers to empathize. Shi Tiesheng’s work is closer to the Western novel tradition, but has rarely been translated until now.

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But there is also politics in Shi, who cleverly combines a fairly large number of characters with psychological depth. Mao Zedong is never mentioned by name, but his totalitarian leadership sets the stage for broader questions about human fate. A policy that was supposed to make society more equal continually excluded people on the basis of new hierarchies.

Shi wants to understand how that exclusion affected his characters so differently. How the mild-mannered doctor F, who misses out on the love of his life because of his partner’s politically sensitive father, leads a small life and avoids the news. While painter Z, disadvantaged by his own absent father, decides that as a great painter he must stand on the side of the strong. How some people can pick up their lives after captivity, while others have become too damaged to do so. Shi needs a lot of space, and sometimes repetition, to deepen the characters and their emotions so much that you understand why each of them ended up on their only possible path – the way it happened.

Physical disability

It is reminiscent of Shi himself, who was forced to think more than average about his fate due to his physical disability in a society that was poorly adapted to this. In a famous essay, which is partly included in the Chinese literature curriculum for high school, he describes how he struggled with depression for a long time after his legs became paralyzed. He spent years in an old park near his house (“Other people went to work; I went to the park”) before he discovered he wanted to write.

In the decades that followed, Shi, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2010 at the age of 59, was known for his joie de vivre and bursts of laughter. “If I have chosen life, why should I live in suffering?” he said in a 2003 interview during the SARS pandemic, when journalists came to him for life lessons. According to Shi, the disaster did not change anything fundamental for most people: “You still have to carry on, preferably a little optimistically.”

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That context explains how his ‘notes’, despite the depressing subject matter, do not sound gloomy. Due to the experimental form – the book consists of 237 short notes over 22 chapters, with letters that refer to the characters because names would be too ‘restrictive’ – and the constant reflection on time and language, you feel Notes from a theorist also as a postmodern novel. But a rippling, almost cheerful version, in which we can calmly reflect on our human failings and the inadequacy of language.

Awkward party

In the case of C and his beloved X, their happiness is not primarily threatened by politics, but by the disapproval of those around them. Will love survive the silent verdict of a life like an awkward party, where everyone looks at you but no one talks to you? A life in which the marriage registrar wonders whether you can have sex, and passers-by look at you with a fear that seems to go beyond the fear of not being able to walk.

Then the novel spells out the message for a moment, in that cheerful tone that does not come across as pedantic. Which of all your other characters, C asks the narrator, would like to drive around in circles in a wheelchair forever, to play this game forever? The narrator remains silent. “But everyone plays a similar game, did you know that?”