Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, first got into trouble with the Chinese authorities in 1981, when he published A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction. He was put under surveillance, and the process began which was to end in the banning of his work and his exile from China. The offensive thing about Gao’s book was that he advocated the influence of modernist techniques on contemporary fiction. Chinese writing under communism has, by decree, had a heavily social-realist and propagandistic bias; modernist ideas were until very recently seen as decadent, corrupt, and inherently capitalistic.
The Western novelist, secure in what Jonathan Franzen got in trouble for calling “the high art tradition,” can feel a twinge of envy on hearing about the condition of the novel in Chinese—not about the state persecution, and certainly not about the fact that the state so readily bans books, but about the sense of precariousness and energizing danger surrounding the whole question of fictional aesthetics. Over here, the only precarious and energizing issues seem to be the size of the advance, the details of the launch, and occasionally the author photo. But where we in the West may think of the modern literary novel as a sedate form, prone to self-regard, in China it is an edgy young genre, riding the cusp of sociocultural change and on the look-out for trouble.
As for the precise nature of the trouble, well—it varies. For some months now, the hot topic in Chinese literary circles has been the rumpus around K, the eleventh book by the youngish (b. 1962) writer Hong Ying, whose earlier works include the novel Summer of Betrayal and the memoir Daughter of the River. The impact of her new book began with its title, which is the same in Chinese as it is in English; that is to say, the title in Chinese is the English letter K. Since Chinese has no equivalent for English letters, this title has the impact not just of being in a foreign language, but of being unpronounceable and incomprehensible—as strange to the mind and eye as it would be to publish an American novel with a Chinese character as its title. When we add to this the novel’s explicit and lengthy descriptions of sex, which by Chinese standards are super-lengthy and super-explicit, and the fact that the novel is based on real people, it is clear that we have here a kind of avant-garde trifecta, combining experimental gestures, sex, and the glamour of fact.
K takes place in China in 1935–1936. The novel tells the story of a love affair between Julian Bell (Virginia Woolf’s nephew, formerly Anthony Blunt’s lover, a teacher at Wuhan University, and subsequently a heroic casualty of the Spanish Civil War) and a Chinese woman writer called Cheng Lin. The title comes from Bell’s real-life habit of referring to his girlfriends by letters of the alphabet; K …