doesn't understand the darkness of night.'
This, quoted by Bei Dao in relation to the way Americans (or any Westerners,
for that matter) can never understand what kind of a place China is, is also
a suitable phrase to apply to what is my, and probably most of our, almost
complete inability to even begin to understand what it is to be a writer in
exile - exile from country, city, home, wife and family and friends. I
thought the phrase was probably an old Chinese idiom. I checked with one of
my Chinese friends; it turns out to be the title of a popular song.
Bei Dao - the pseudonym of Chinese poet Zhao Zhen Kai - was exiled from China
after the pro-democracy protests of 1989. At the time, he was out of the
country attending a conference in Berlin. Having long been associated with
counter-revolutionary factions, he couldn't go home; his exile continued
until 2006. During those years, he lived in a variety of places around the
world, including Copenhagen, New York, Paris and Prague.
This book of essays comes from that period of wandering. The essays are
diary-like, for the most part. Their concern, if there can be said to be one
main theme running throughout, is with displacement, coping, and the place of
culture and poetry in a world that somehow contrives to value and to
disregard both at the same time. But having said that, I think I'd also have
to say that these concerns rather drift through the text than push themselves
to the foreground.
It's a rather disconcerting read, in some ways. Whether or not this is a
result of the translation it's impossible to say, but the tone throughout is
somewhat flat, which often lends a curious air of disengagement to what's
being told. While this makes for an easy read it is, like I said, also
disconcerting. I kept wanting it to be more vivid than it is.
Several of the essays tell about Chinese emigrants, some of whom are also in
exile. One thing I didn't like about the book was the way in which all of
these people are referred to by initials, rather than names. If it's
precautionary, it seems an unnecessary precaution. But never mind. The
character sketches are interesting enough, but they become more interesting
when Bei Dao is drawn into making larger observations, observations prompted
by the individual concerned but that cast light on his own thinking. When
talking about 'Boss L', for example, he tells how
person passing through Paris, as long as they
slightest bit of culture around the edges, could look
being waited on by him at least once; it was like
waiting on Chinese culture itself. How could he have
for most writers and artists, their work has nothing
to do with
culture, but is merely a way to put food on the table.
This may sound disingenuous, but it's a side of Bei Dao I rather like. While
the overall tone of the prose is disengaged and rather flat, one senses that
he keeps things a little at a distance as a matter of course. His name, after
all, means 'North Island', and was given to him because of his love of
solitude, and throughout these writings there is a sense of solitude even
when he's surrounded by lots of people. Often it's a solitude created by a
language barrier, but one senses too that it's a solitude created by an idea
of the poet and of poetry that is misunderstood. Poets who are held to be
spokespersons of their generation, or to be speaking for their political
comrades, are perhaps not expected to say things like
On the one
hand poetry is useless. It can't change the world
On the other hand it is a basic part of human
came into the world when humans did. It's what
The central essay here concerns Bei Dao's visit to Palestine in 2002 as part
of the International Parliament of Writers delegation. It's central not just
because its title is also the book's title; it's central because here are a
bunch of writers, some in exile, some not, who are visiting writers (one in
particular, Mahmoud Darwish) who cannot get out of their homeland. The
resonances are obvious, I guess.
It's not all quite so serious. I was naturally drawn to the section entitled
civilizations have been divided into two broad classes:
and the Apollonian. Chinese culture originally
been placed in the category of civilization named
after the god of wines. The Xia and the Shang
'pools of wine and forests of meat.' The rulers drank
common people drank, many drinking themselves to
say that because lamp oil was expensive at that
places were unlit at night, so what else was there to
do but drink?
Later, these dynasties inevitably fell to a more
dynasty, the Zhou. The Duke of Zhou advocated 'creating
establishing music.' Once they abandoned wine, the
genes of the Chinese people changed accordingly.
I can't hold
much liquor, but I'm an avid drinker nonetheless...
But it's all serious enough.
wanderings, alcohol has been my most loyal companion.
and makes promises, it tells you that there are no
that cannot be overcome, it never betrays you,
and at worst
it gives you a headache for a few days - just as
One thing Bei Dao doesn't do a lot of in these essays is hark back much to
his own experiences of China. It's as if China, its distance and its sadness,
is a given. Allusions are made in brief to others' individual experiences in
the home country, but by and large China is in these essays because its
recent history informs the writer's life as much as being Chinese informs his
way of thinking. As he says on the final page of the final essay, after 1950
'the stories of all Chinese people are similar - a collective story, the
story of a generation.' This is a gentle book; the cruelties and the despair
that frame it are alluded to but kept pretty much at arm's length. And
perhaps that's its underlying strength. That, and a sense of calm dignity in
the face of adversity. That's very Chinese.
Martin Stannard, 2008