Yan Geling is one of China’s most promising contemporary writers. Earlier this year, while I lay in bed recovering from an a bad case of the flu, I did a lot of reading – and I happened to have two of her novels on my bedside table: The Flowers of War (also: 13 Flowers of Nanjing) and The Uninvited (also: The Banquet Bug).
That these books differ so greatly in terms of not only content, but voice, style, characterization just proves that Yan is a force to be reckoned with. The Flowers of War is a slim, spare novel – elegantly written, poignant, and attempts to capture a difficult time in Chinese history: the Japanese occupation/WWII. In this particular novel, Yan keeps the writing pared back and minimal in order not to sentimentalize or overdo what are potentially some horrifying scenes.
It is completely unlike the gory, graphic [non-fictional] account of the war by Iris Chang (The Nanjing Massacre). In a way, exploring the brutality of war is not her primary motive; rather, she uses the era as a backdrop to tell the stories of the ‘flowers of Nanjing’. Yan steers the reader away from the bloodshed by creating an enclosed world within an abandoned church, where a group of stranded schoolgirls are being looked after an American priest, Father Engelmann. Things become interesting when thirteen courtesans climb across the walls, seeking refuge in the church. (Side note, but I also highly recommend Zhang Yi Mou’s film version, starring Christopher Bale as an Oskar Schindler-type figure, who becomes an unwilling saviour for these schoolgirls/courtesans).
The Univited, on the other hand, is a tour de force through the corrupt, rambunctious, often dazzlingly dynamic paradoxes of modern China. I would’ve been very dismissive and skeptical of Yan’s writing ability had I not picked up this second novel. It follows the life of a disgruntled factory worker who takes on a fake identity as a journalist in order to attend state-funded banquets.
Here, being unrestrained by a ‘heavy’ topic which has historical significance for thousands of Chinese citizens who suffered during the wartime era and their descendants, Yan takes on a playful approach, indulging us with decadent descriptions of gourmet dishes and taking her characters through a world spun with irony and black humour. Despite this lighter touch, and the wry comedy of it all, The Uninvited pokes fingers into some pressing concerns about what some would call the disease of contemporary China – i.e. the rat race for wealth/prosperity and development, and the moral vacuum at the heart of it all.
We can try to understand China by keeping up with the news/media, and all the speculation by Western intellectuals (Martin Jacques, Fareed Zakaria, yeah we’ve heard it all), but perhaps we should also be listening to the voices coming from China itself. It doesn’t always need to be so politicized. There’s a lot to be learnt from the nation’s literature if you only look closely enough.