The library of Li Er

Updated: 2012-03-23 10:41

By Chitralekha Basu and Yang Guang (China Daily)

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One of China's best-known writers of literary fiction talks about his latest anthology of short fiction

It's perhaps appropriate that novelist Li Er has a day job with the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature in Beijing.

The library of Li Er
Li Er, the author of the White Raven. [Zhan Min / China Photo Press]

The expansive L-shaped structure that has its twin wings cradling a sizeable section of Wenxueguan Road is a conspicuous mix of architectural styles. While its peach walls, latticed windows and sloping blue pagoda roofs are intrinsically Chinese, the white pillars supporting the conical roof on the facade that connects the two arms are a throwback to Greco-Roman architectural styles. The interiors are spiffy and functional, just like any other modern office space.

In a way, it's a metaphor for the several literary traits and impulses that inform the sensibilities of Li Er - a truly outstanding voice among China's best-known writers of literary fiction.

He calls himself a modernist but is also a postmodernist and a chronicler of 2,500 years of Chinese history.

Often, nothing much happens in Li's stories and this is true of most of the pieces featured in his latest anthology of short fiction, The White Raven, published in January.

A wife suspects her husband is having an affair, and a taxi driver piles his shopping cart high with goods he cannot pay for at a supermarket to impress his date. Li dwells on the moment, leaving his characters hanging in the middle of a delicious irresolution, a typical modernist ambiguity.

His ability to tweak the contours of recorded history and push it into the realm of the surreal is also very post-modern. As is his felicity with inventing imaginary - often bizarre, but, in the long run, utterly believable - characters who he places at crucial junctures in history - as in the story The Magician of 1919 (see sidebar) and his most-discussed work Truth and Variations (Hua Qiang).

Replete with inter-textual references that often confound more than they illuminate, Li's treatment of history is meant to pick the brains of those who know it well. In that sense, he is a writer's writer.

Novelist and translator Harvey Thomlinson, who published The Magician of 1919, Li's first book in English translation, seems taken by the writer's ability to create "alternative histories by mixing up the real and the made-up".

"In Chinese fiction, where most narratives are linear, this is a novelty," Thomlinson adds.

But Li, even as he admits to devouring the stalwarts of 20th-century literature from the West - Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, British novelist Salman Rushdie, American novelist and painter John Dos Passos, Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz and French-Algerian author Albert Camus - insists that he was never "influenced" by any of them.

"I deal with the Chinese experience, the growth of consumerist culture in China," he tells us when we meet him on a gloomy January morning, in his office, tucked away in a nondescript niche of the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature.

"In Truth and Variations I was, in fact, following the tradition of classical Qing Dynasty-style novels," Li says.

The combination of disparate themes and generic treatments in his work, he insists, is in character with the situation in present-day China.

"We are sandwiched between the pre-modern, the modern and the post-modern. All these experiences are squeezed together. The tail of Chinese culture and society, as these are now, is still in the pre-modern times as indeed its body finds itself in the modern period."

This emotional disconnect - between the ideal and the real, between what acquired wisdom suggests and present reality contradicts - is, Li says, central to his work.

"Primarily, I am interested in talking about the conflicting, paradoxical experiences of life, for that's where the possibility of a dialogue lies in between the apparently opposite, disparate elements."

The figure of the Confucian scholar in a free market economy - where morality and social relationships, ostensibly, make way for self-aggrandizement and the blind worship of materialism - appears in many of Li's works, including Truth and Variations and Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree.

The book Li is writing now - a rather ambitious third part of an intended trilogy on China's history, present reality and future - is about the life of a Confucian intellectual, trying to set up a Confucius Institute and the chain of events that follow.

"Confucianism resonates with contemporary society," Li says. "It sees life as a process of endlessly temporary states, encourages people to harbor the wish to change the world, even when they may not be in a position to do so. The world is too big and complex for human beings to be able to change it significantly.

"Confucianism encourages participation in, and a desire to, change the world. Many people in China consider Marxism a contemporary form of Confucianism."

Born and raised in Jiyuan county, Henan province, Li came to live in Beijing in 2003. In a previous interview with China Daily in 2009, he talked about his deep connection with China's rural heartland.

It is evident in the short story Stephen's Back (translated by Denis Mair and published in Pathlight magazine, Vol 1), in which an English football coach scouting for young players in a Chinese village to form a national team sets off a chain of aberrant behavior. Sexual tension brews between spouses, while fathers of aspiring candidates spy on each other.

Does Li find the tension between the country and the city fascinating, now that he has a perspective?

"I am interested in the other culture, the city as seen from the point of view of the country and vice versa in how these two graft into each other and evolve," Li says. "Westerners are eager to read about two kinds of Chinese countryside: One, the countryside where traditional Chinese customs are preserved. Two: the commune system introduced by Chairman Mao Zedong. Neither represents the story of China as it is in the present time."

For those keen to get a sense of the true story of China, there are always the surreal, ambivalent spaces and the league of extraordinarily angular characters created in Li's fiction.

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