New Books: Zhu Wen, Indra Sinha

Father’s car pulled up soon after, his unmissable dye job emerging first into the night. I then watched him walk over to the other side of the car, and open the door — ever the perfect gentleman — for his girl, Li Hong. I couldn’t believe my eyes, seeing my own father open the car door for a whore, and help her out, his every action gleaming with a lustrous, classical polish. Dad, I know you’re nervous. I can tell, but you make me so proud. You’re amazing, you really are.

This sweet, confused young hero of Zhu Wen’s title story is caught in a whirl of filial piety and materialistic insecurity. Flush with money amidst the mad crush of modern urban Chinese prosperity, the only thing he can think to do when his beloved father comes to visit is to show off his wealth by buying his father a prostitute. The fact that his father does not want a prostitute but goes along with the plan to please his son brings the comedy to a piquant pitch.

I really like the way Zhu Wen writes, and I hope this slim, attractively packaged paperback original will find the alternative-minded audience it deserves (Wen is a popular generational hero in modern urban China right now). The back cover promo compares Zhu’s outrageous comic style to Larry David, but the more sublime and understated comic artist Mike Leigh might be a better comparison. Highly recommended.

Animal’s People by Indra Sinha

Indra Sinha’s new novel has one of the bleakest fictional settings of all time: it takes place in a city like Bhopal, India, and is narrated by a bitter, verbose street scavenger badly deformed (so that he is called “Animal”) by the chemical disaster:

I was six when the pains began, plus the burning in my neck and across the shoulders. Nothing else do I remember from that time, my first memory is that fire. It was so bad I could not lift my head. I just couldn’t lift it. The pain gripped my neck and forced it down. I had to stare at my feet while a devil rode my back and chafed me with red hot tongs … After that my back began to twist.

With enough attitude for the hero of a Dostoevsky novel, this desolate and impotent character allows himself to seethe proudly with rage, tempered by humor.

The world of humans is meant to be viewed from eye level. Your eyes. Lift my head I’m staring into someone’s crotch. Whole nother world it is below the waist. Believe me, I know which one hasn’t washed his balls.

This is a hard book to read — I am still mired in it — but what makes it work is the narrator’s exquisite voice. Sinha weaves the main character with the dexterity of Albert Camus or Henry Miller:

I am saying this into darkness that is filled with eyes. Whichever way I look eyes are showing up. They’re floating round in the air, these fucking eyes, turning this way and that they’re, looking for things to see. I don’t want them to see me, I’m lying on the floor, which is of dry dust, the tape mashin is by my head.

Indra Sinha, who was born in Bombay and lives in London, is now on a hunger strike for the victims of the Union Carbide leak in Bhopal. More about this here, here and here.

3 Responses

  1. Wasn’t ‘Animal’s People’ one
    Wasn’t ‘Animal’s People’ one of the runner ups for the Booker Prize?

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