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César Aira: Una novela china [A Chinese Novel]

This is one of Aira’s early novels – actually his sixth but, in terms of his immense oeuvre, still very early – and it has not, of course, been translated into English. It is a short novel but, in keeping with his usual approach, he packs a lot into it. It is written in his usual style – straightforward and direct, no slang, intelligent, discussing ideas, all the hallmarks of a successful quality novelist.

The novel tells the story of Lu Hsin. As Aira says, he was a mandarin but he wasn’t. He wasn’t because he was born into a poor family. His mother, Suen Ki’han, had moved to the town of Hosa-Chen, shortly before the end of the Ts’ing (i.e. Qing – Aira uses the Wade-Giles spelling) era. Lu was already born. She married again in a couple of years but they had no children. Her husband complained and her response was that she did not have children. When asked about Lu, she merely shrugged her shoulders. She said her husband was welcome to leave her. For the remaining twenty years of her life, she sold water-melon seeds. It is at this point that Aira throws in a light political statement. Suen Ki’han, like many millions of other Chinese peasants before the revolution, lives what Aira calls the life of a sleepwalker. Lu Hsin, however, was a highly intelligent man and moved away from the rural proletariat and becomes a highly self-educated man.

The book follows Lu Hsin’s path through life. The Chinese revolution takes place but does not seem to have a huge direct impact on Lu Hsin or the people of Hosa-Chen, except for general improvements in the standard of living. The revolution and Marxist theory are mentioned. One of the characters has a picture of Stalin on his wall, but it all seems to stay in the background. Even when the Cultural Revolution comes and, just prior to it, Lu Hsin has openly criticised Marxism in his widely-read newspaper, not only does he not see to have problems but is actually welcomed and feted by the Communist authorities. Lu Hsin seems to be what we would call a Renaissance man. He learns several European languages, frequently reading French, German and English works. (I have to wonder how he managed to obtain copies of French and German books and newspapers in rural China during the revolution.) He becomes a successful painter. During the book, he will become a water engineer, advising the local community on serious water works in the area. He will found a newspaper and set up his own printing press (hauled in on an ox cart) and distribute it. It will be so successful that its renown will reach as far as Beijing. He brews his owns special tea and seems to be an expert on plants and forestry. In short, whatever he turns his hand to, he does well. He also has a small group of friends, men of similar intellectual level (though, perhaps with not quite as highly developed an intellect as his) with whom he spends time discussing a variety of issues, such as painting and agriculture.

One thing that distinguishes Lu Hsin from others is his ability, indeed his desire, to see matters from a different perspective. We see this when he is up in the mountains, looking down at the plains below. He thinks to himself that painters, instead of doing the traditional paintings of mountains from down in the plains, should rather paint the plains from up on the mountains, where, in his opinion, the view is much better. He has several other insights, which we might call contrarian, except that he does not force these issues.

Initially, he remains single. However, a mother and daughter, San and Bao, who live in the mountains, come down to Hosa-chen to sell mountain fruits, which Lu Hsin buys. Though he speaks several languages, he does not speak their mountain dialect but they manage to get by with their basic Chinese. Lu Hsin is attracted to Bao. Moreover, the more he realises that he, in his social position, could not marry her, the more his contrarian spirit comes to the fore and he plans to do so. For some time, this seems a possibility but is eventually abandoned. His friends thinks he is going to have an affair with his (married) neighbour but he does not. What he does do is adopt a newly born baby girl from a mountain family and he plans to raise her in his way and then, when she is old enough, marry her. Again there is speculation by his friends and neighbours. Will he marry the nanny, Ma Whu, he hires to look after the girl, Hin or have an affair with her? We follow Hin’s growing up but also Lu Hsin’s changing views on Hin.

This really is a superb novel by Aira and I can only state, as I have said so often, that it is a pity that it is not available in English. That Aira would choose to write a novel set entirely in China with only Chinese characters is unusual. I do not know whether he has visited China but Chinese characters do occur in at least two of his other novels – La guerra de los gimnasios [The War of the Gymnasia] and Varamo (Varamo). The way he writes the novels is painterly. We get an evocation of the Chinese landscape both from the author but also from Lu Hsin, one of whose many skills is painting. Lu Hsin is a fascinating character – the perfect Renaissance man but located in a small town in rural China. He is a man of great intellect, giving his thoughts to everything from painting to hydrology, from genetics to agriculture. He runs a newspaper which seems to be respected throughout China and is even read by Zhou Enlai. He writes scholarly tomes on many varied subjects, yet still has time for friends and his adoptive daughter. And, of course, it is a fascinating story of China through a very troubled period. The very wonderful New Directions has published several of his books in English. It is to be hoped that they will publish this one.

Publishing history

First published by J. Vergara in 1987
No English translation