Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Hunger for sea snails

I'm home alone tonight and curled up in bed in thrall of Geling Yan's The Uninvited. The novel's characterisations unravel as quickly as the plot and both spin out of control into a terrific, white-knuckle read.

Dishes made from a thousand crab claw tips, minced pigeon breasts with mashed tofu moulded into tiny snowballs and garnished with tiny flakes of spring onions, peacock with diakon radish cut and dyed to resemble feathers, sea snails minced with veal and wild mushrooms and squeezed back into the shells, raw veal on jellyfish, shark fins...

Such elaborate dishes are a far cry from the "dark gruel made of tree bark and sorghum" that Dan Dong and his wife Little Plum grew up on in the impoverished Chinese province of Gansu. They are a far cry from the plain noodles and expired canned goods they now subsist on in the city of Beijing, where they marvel at the urban paradise unfurling around them. Little Plum "roams the supermarket, admiring stacks of dish detergents, napkins and bath towels as if they were flower beds or pavilions in a park".

So who can blame Dan when he stumbles upon the realisation that he can eat dishes of untold delicacy and sophistication simply by pretending to be a journalist attending one of the numerous business conferences the rapidly expanding city is hosting day by day, and get paid to do so for a positive write-up. In an ironic twist, he realises he can actually write better than most of the hacks around him who are also just attending the conferences for the food and for the money and are writing self-censored and inaccurate articles.

As he evolves into a genuine journalist himself, he finds himself approached by ordinary people with their own tales of corruption and injustice in this new and vibrant country. When one of his exposés appear in print, Dan becomes embroiled in the same murky underworld he is seeking to expose. Construction workers ask him to help them fight against their shady real estate employer, but Dan's efforts are thwarted when the real estate agent offers him his longed for own apartment. Eventually Dan is torn between his thirst for justice and his hunger for sea snails.

Geling Yan was born in Shanghai but is now free to express whatever she wants about her homeland as it hurtles into the 21st century, having emigrated to the United States after the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. She is a leading figure in China's post-Tiananmen literary diaspora, and in The Uninvited (her first novel written in English) she has produced a sweet and sour account of life in modern day China.

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