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Friday, April 03, 2020, 10:48
Bite-sized takes on Zhejiang
By Melanie Hoare
Friday, April 03, 2020, 10:48 By Melanie Hoare

Dong Jun invests an elderly professor’s daily chores with beauty and meaning in Professor Su Jing’an in His Later Years. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Penguin Books China’s latest collection of short books, published under the series title “Penguin Specials”, offers a glimpse into writing from Zhejiang province. Published in collaboration with the Zhejiang Writers Association, the five titles give readers a chance to explore works by Dong Jun, Ai Wei, Bi Yu, Zhe Gui and Wang Shou. These books could be read at one go, over a cup of coffee or during lunch break. 

Despite their small size, the books pack in a punch. For example, the plot in Fleeing Xinhe Street by Zhe Gui, translated into English by Ana Padilla Fornieles, is centered on the conman Wang Wuxian. Each chapter narrates the story of a different person involved in Wang’s scams. When Wang runs into trouble, he realizes that it’s not easy to escape. 

Zhe provides plenty of color throughout the book with detailed descriptions that pay off later. His protagonist is 40, unmarried and color-blind. “Wang Wuxian enjoyed making fun of his physical defects and he happily let his friends laugh at his expense, too. He was color-blind, so in his world, neither green nor red existed. He once wore a pair of bright red trousers to a get-together. His friends were aware of his condition and intentionally tested him at every gathering.”

Wang runs the One Plus One Guarantee Company, a high-risk business of borrowing and lending money. But big risks also mean the opportunity for big profits and Wang ably convinces other businesses on Xinhe Street to become his customers. 

Born in 1973, Zhe is from the city of Wenzhou. His writings are concerned with the inequalities of class and economic status. In Fleeing Xinhe Street, readers get a sense both of his pet themes as well as style, which is direct and straight-forward, and comes with a number of quirky details. Despite the short length of the book, the author has included a well etched-out backstory for each character, thus helping readers to see the relationships between characters in the context of money and power. 

A conman and his relationship with society come under the scanner in Zhe Gui’s Fleeing Xinhe Street. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Autumn years

In Dong Jun’s Professor Su Jing’an in His Later Years, translated by Sid Gulinck, the protagonist is a respected academic of Chinese studies. Told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, the story follows the professor, going through his daily chores. There is a sense of foreboding about the narrator’s tone as the book builds to its climax.  

The narrator is in awe of the professor. For example, “Now that he had retired, he consented to me becoming his caretaker, a task designated to me by the center which I accepted with glee. As a matter of fact, my literary affinity with Professor Su ran deep. I first started reading his books back in college.”

The mundaneness of the professor’s daily routine is invested with beauty and meaning in the narrator’s description of them. For example, “The streaks of pale yellow light falling in through the drapes gave the room an almost chiaroscuro quality, which was permeated with the beguiling, bitter aroma of morning coffee. You could virtually smell the incoming sunlight.” 

Dong manages to cover a lot of ground in just 50 pages, making the unexpected ending all the more satisfying.

If you read

Penguin Specials

Fleeing Xinhe Street 

By Zhe Gui 

Translated by Ana Padilla Fornieles


Professor Su Jing’an in His Later Years

By Dong Jun 

Translated by Sid Gulinck


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