Why are Chinese authors more Chinese than authors?

Mai Jia 麦家 did a reading in Vienna on Monday. I was there, the bookshop was packed. Felt like a hundred people. Which is probably not allowed, so let’s say we were less. Many people somehow interested in China, and in reading a spy novel. Ex-Maoists, embassy agents, TV reporters. Mai Jia said many things I have recognized reading this blog post. He said documentary writing, writing straight from experience, is just not what he does. He says he tries to learn from Kafka. Not that documentary writing is unimportant, he said; after all, Svetlana Alexievich just won a Nobel for her reports from the former Soviet Union. But his writing comes from thousands of novels, foreign books and old Chinese tomes. He did work for years for army intelligence. But not all his novels are about spies. Astrid Mo says important stuff in this post. Henry Zhao said the same thing after he heard Frederic Jameson lecture in Beijing 30 years ago. But Astrid makes it very clear here, in a way that makes me finally understand.

Writing China

This Monday I met Chinese author Mai Jia 麦家, who’s novel 》解密《 (Decoded) from 2002 has just been translated into Danish by Susanne Posborg. I was pleasantly surprised that the work of this so-called ‘king of the Chinese spy novel’ (中国谍战小说之父王) is less about secret agents and more about the emotional and intellectual development of its characters. Mai Jia seemed to experience the same kind of gratified surprise when our conversation turned to literary topics – topics which to me it seemed only natural to discuss with a writer. Later I was to understand why.

That same evening, Mai Jia gave a public interview with a Danish journalist at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. This journalist asked only one question about the novel itself, most of which is set during the Cultural Revolution. The question was why Mai Jia did not give a more detailed account of…

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