Monday, September 8, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE UNBEARABLE DREAMWORLD OF CHAMPA THE DRIVER” by Chan Koonchung - translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (Doubleday; distributed by  Random House, $NZ36:99)

Now where on Earth do I place this novel The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver? With Candide? With The Good Soldier Schweik? With Silone’s Fontamara? Or just with plain old Socratic irony? I’m not saying it is necessarily as deft and enduring as any of the works I’ve just mentioned, but its satire is very much in the same general vein. An innocent and apparently rather gormless person tells a story in the first person, and in doing so exposes all manner of social ills and evils in the land he inhabits.
Let’s be specific.
In Lhasa, in Tibet, the Tibetan driver Champa acts as chauffeur for the Han Chinese woman Plum. He is, however, more than just her chauffeur. He is her toyboy, her lover, her “sex fiend” and so there are many scenes of explicit swyving. Plum, in early middle age and a bit on the fleshy side, is of Hong Kong origin and is very much in tune with China’s new culture of opportunistic entrepreneurship. We are told of her business interests:
Plum had lots to do. She was a good businesswoman, everyone said so, good at making money and a good provider too. She had fingers in every pie. Besides her Beijing business interests, she’d spent ten years trading in Tibet in Buddhist statuettes and ritual objects, antiques and dzi heads, caterpillar fungus and saffron, and then she’d expanded into Hong Kong as well. She wanted to diversify into tourism, organizing tour groups in jeeps, and investing in high quality boutique hotels. Then it was mining.” (p.21)
This passage alone tells us that, even if the narrator Champa himself can’t at once see it, Plum is in effect representative of China’s looting and exploitation of Tibetan culture. Champa the narrator does not make a great fuss about this, because he is mainly preoccupied with earning a living and enjoying his sex-life. But strategically-placed background details tell us that Chinese riot police stand ready when Tibet’s New Year is about to be celebrated; aged Tibetans who go to a religious festival in Nepal are forcibly “re-educated” when they return; the borders of Tibet are closed by the Chinese overlords when the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s departure is about to be recalled and there is a sinister official phrase about “Stability Preservation”, meaning the suppression of all possible dissent. Tibet is a colonised land with its indigenous people forced into serving their imperial masters and adopting the culture of their imperial masters except when they are put on display for tourists.
Anyway, Champa begins to have a crisis in his life. He finds he cannot service Plum satisfactorily unless he is thinking about other women. This leads him to seek out other women before rushing back to Plum’s bed. But then this stratagem itself begins to lose its power until, miraculously, Champa encounters the face of a goddess in one of the Tibetan-style statuettes Plum has had manufactured for trade. As he narrates it:
A few weeks had passed but one thing hadn’t changed: when I f***ed Plum, all I could think of was the Tara statuette. Before that, all my fantasies had been about women you had sex with once and then forgot, a different one every time, but now it was the Tara or nothing. I couldn’t get it up for Plum any more, only for the Bodhisattva. I had to imagine I was having sex with a goddess just so I could make Plum believe it was all for her.” (p.54)
At this point I found myself saying “Spot the symbol!” even in the midst of the novel’s farcical comic tone. Tibetan man switches lusty sexual urges from Chinese woman to image (albeit debased) of Tibetan religion. Translation (I thought): novel is telling us that Tibetan man’s deepest impulses are still rooted in his indigenous religious culture, and not in the flashy materialism that China has imposed upon him.
But a few pages later I had to concede that I might have been indulging in premature interpretation, for it turns out that the goddess face on the statuette is modelled on the face of Plum’s Beijing-based daughter Shell. So off Champa goes on the lengthy journey from Lhasa to Beijing in search of Shell. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver becomes a more straightforwardly satirical road trip, with the evils of the author’s homeland overtly ridiculed via Champa’s artless observations.
What does he meet on his journey? A sort-of sage called Nyima who speaks frankly of the evils of Tibet’s old priest-run feudal past (torture and theocracy – it wasn’t all gentle Buddhist monks) but who also discourses on the barbarities practised by the People’s Liberation Army during its “liberation” of Tibet, and on the number of Chinese reduced to cannibalism during the Great Famine of 1958-62 (the worst in human history), engineered by Mao’s government, and on officially-sanctioned genocide.
Near Beijing, Champa encounters the bizarre scene of a truck, stuffed with stolen pets animals, being waylaid by animal rights’ activists. Apparently there are many such trucks in China now as the population at large still has an appetite for meals of dog or cat and yet the number of dog or cat farms is diminishing – therefore stealing pets for the dinner table has become big business.
In Beijing itself, Champa does find Shell and there is the glimmer of an idea about a Chinese with pure intentions. Even so, the Big Smoke is largely presented in terms of the nasty underworld into which Champa is swept in the only job he can get - as a “security guard” (i.e. enforcer) for a big boss. How stray Tibetans are treated in Beijing is also suggested, with stories of corrupt police who pin any unsolved crimes on artless Tibetan yokels, so that their crime-clearance statistics will look good.
I would not say that any of this is particularly subtle and I did become fatigued by all the galumphing sex scenes – there are far too many of the damned things and the way Champa reports them confirms him as Mr Majorly Insensitive. On the other hand, it does have considerable crude gusto and is an easy-enough read.
This is the second novel by the Chinese Chan Koonchung, a man whose background is in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but who now chooses to live and work in Beijing. Like his first novel The Fat Years (look it up on the index at right), The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver is banned in China itself for its subversive and anti-government content. The Fat Years skewered the way Chinese media and officialdom attempt to pretend that much of China’s turbulent dissident past (especially pro-democracy riots) has never happened. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver is more concerned with Chinese imperialism, police corruption and exploitation of ethnic minorities. I think what Chan Koonchung is getting at is plain as a pikestaff and I won’t be churlish enough to suggest that he should try for a more delicate style. I am interested that with all his subversive views he continues to live unmolested in Beijing – at least this is an improvement on the way dissident writers were once treated in the People’s Republic – but maybe that simply says the authorities don’t bother with somebody who will only be read by foreigners.
This is a fine, rude nose-thumb of a novel if you don’t mind all the dumb sex.

Extremely Silly Footnote: I note that the city is now spelt “Beijing”, but whenever a certain dish is mentioned it is spelt “Peking Duck”. Apparently culinary orthography is different from geographical orthography – at least for Western readers.

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