By Rafael Tsao
We asked our collaborator from China’s most international city to survey for us Latin American literature available either in Mandarin or Spanish. He went to two of the city’s better known bookshops and what he found -together with his comments on the actual context of those books and translations- is truly revealing
In terms of influence Japan, France, Germany and Russia, rank higher. This literary quartet have been exporting their mainstream foreign literature to Chinese readers for a while. With Japanese literature the Chinese elites had their initial vision of modernisation about almost anything whilst French and German cultural outputs were also worshipped as paradigms of westernness. And Russian revolutionists, like Dostoyevsky, are credited for conquering Chinese intelligentsia with their soul-piercing realistic literature a priori. After that, the “Open and Reform” generation of Chinese intellectuals started to pay attention to the narratives of late-blooming third world countries.
Latin America, on the other hand, is taken as “the other of the other.” Separated by an enormous geographical and cultural gulf meant that there was next to no interaction with the Hispanic world apart from some minor encounters with a few jesuits in the xvi-xvii centuries (blame the counter-reformist San Ignacio de Loyola for that) who paid sporadic visits to the ailing Ming dynasty. As a result it is worth pointing out that Chinese descendants in the Philippines and Cuba did stage some fascinating but now completely forgotten stories in mainland China. But in the early xx century -a few centuries apart- the Chinese had their earliest sip of Spanish literature with Cervantes and Azorín. Don Quijote de La Mancha was translated into Mandarin for the first time in 1922, the same year Ulysses and The Wasteland were published. But Azorín was one of the most influential writers, some of his essays -in spite of his rightwing views- were eulogised by some of the country’s leading “revolutionary” writers. During the 1960s apex of the Communist Revolution, “Marxist” Latin American literature was translated into Mandarin as part of an ambitious internationalist literature project.
«Latin American literature is overall acclaimed by Chinese readers for its colourful heterogeneity compared to Chinese political orthodoxy. Its literary doctrines are welcomed as a non-binary worldview of «the West versus China»»
Neruda was unquestionably the biggest star of this period, his first anthology in Mandarin got published in 1950 which makes it almost as old as the 1949 creation of The People’s Republic of China. I believe the guy talking to Neruda here on the left was Ai Qing, a famous Chinese poet whose son, now living in Portugal, is the most famous Chinese contemporary artist of our days: Ai Weiwei
The 1980s were heralded by officials calling it the decade of “the emancipation of thoughts”. Alongside French postmodernism, German Romanticism and the ramifications of Westernness, Latin American literature was imported to a population eager for exoticism. Magic Realism dropped the first bombshell. Chinese writers were mesmerised by the apparent congeniality between Latin America and China. Inspired by Márquez and co they tried to tinge pristine origins and contemporary tumult with idiosyncrasy and ambiguity. Almost synchronised, the Magic Realism fad was a cult of erudite story-tellers from the Southern Cone for their sophistication and profundity. The very name Borges became a synonym for artsy-fartsy in the every-day language spoken by the cultured youth. Likewise China’s art cinema crown prince Bi Gan took the name from Bolaño’s The Last Evenings on Earth for his magnum opus. As it happens the “Boom latinoamericano” rejuvenated Chinese readers and viewers probably in the least likely way more than a decade after its conclusion.
Latin American literature is overall acclaimed by Chinese readers for its colourful heterogeneity compared to Chinese political orthodoxy. Its literary doctrines are welcomed as a non-binary worldview of the “West versus China” narrative. So how is Latin American literature received in China’s most international city? Contrary to the costume of Chinese people shopping online I decided to do an old school type of inquiry and I ventured into Shanghai’s renowned art house bookstores. Needless to say, results from physical observation are often more telling than voluminous lifeless data.
This is a cinema-themed bookstore in the city’s former French Concession also selling a proper variety of western literature and philosophy books. In its shelf for foreign language books (basically English and Japanese titles), I found an anthology of Gabo including his infamously banned Cien años de soledad, a forbidden lecture in China for years. A personal anecdote: it was from this very selection of Gabo that I took a copy of The General in his labyrinth to “celebrate” Shanghai’s lifting of a two-month lockdown last summer. And next to Gabo is, surprisingly, a minor anthology of Horacio Castellanos Moya.
Speaking of the Salvadorian, I would compare Insensatez (Senselessness) to a dagger with a sharp edge but a blunt blade. It is a harrowing tale of systematic violence and even genocide in Central America. The Chinese translation of Insensatez was published last year; the result didn’t sit very well with me because I felt the translator overcooked her emulation of Moya’s already deliberately colloquial wording. After Gabo and Moya, I came across Cuban novelist Agustín de Rojas’ science fiction novel Una leyenda del futuro, and Bolivian writer Edmundo Paz Soldán’s Notre. Two names that were absolutely outlandish to me till then. I’m genuinely marveled by The Mix Place’s selection.
«Magic Realism dropped the first bombshell. Chinese writers were mesmerised by the apparent congeniality between Latin America and China. Inspired by Márquez and co they tried to tinge pristine origins and contemporary tumult with idiosyncrasy and ambiguity.»
Let’s move on to the Chinese books sector. Here the popularity of Latin American literature becomes even more evident. Paraguayan Juan Manuel Marcos’s El invierno de Gunter is next to Galeano’s El libro de los abrazos and to Fuentes’ master piece La muerte de Artemio Cruz. Below is an anthology of Maria Luisa Bombal’s La última niebla and La Amortajada. Feminism is gaining relevance in China these days but haven’t heard Bombal being talked about, let alone quoted, much although in Latin America is being revisited with passion and curiosity as the first true examples of Magic Realism.
Once again we come back to Roberto Bolaño. A short novel collection: El retorno, the Mandarin translation literally means Return to Dark Night (it sounds pretty Hollywood to me, almost the title of a new Batman film). And then, an Argentine duo: Ernesto Sabato and Roberto Alt. Sabato’s Sobre héroes y tumbas in Chinese is literally translated into 《在英雄与黑暗之间，and on the cover of Alt’s Los lanzallamas -his fascinating sequel to Los siete locos– are these taglines: “Argentina’s Dostoyevsky”, “A Borges-class genius writer.” Borges might be turning a bit in his Swiss grave. So how about the man himself? Strangely, nothing more than one sole title: La cifra.
I don’t think the name “Sinan” is at all related to the legendary Ottoman architect. “Si Nan”, or in Mandarin “思南” which could be transliterated into “Missing the South.” Located in one of downtown Shanghai’s posh areas, Sinan Books is now officially hyped and it is rapidly becoming the city’s newest culture landmark. The architectonic design of its poetry section is reminiscent of Borges’s impossible dystopian literary tale La biblioteca de Babel.
Notably, the ground floor of Sinan Books is titled as London Review Bookshop, the augustan English publication renown for basically ignoring Latin American literature. But here, unlike the magazine, the quantity and quality of Latin American titles is impressive. I first spotted two Mario Vargas Llosa works: El héroe discreto and Lituma en Los Andes. Followed by more big names. Eduardo Galeano’s Días y noches de amor y de guerra, Carlos Fuentes’ Valiente mundo nuevo; and next to it, Clarice Lispector’s Laços de Família. Similarly to María Luisa Bombal, Lispector is still under-mentioned in Mandarin introductions of Latin American literature.
And, as expected with any good bookshop, a gem: Pedro Henríquez Ureña’s Seis ensayos en busca de nuestra expresión. Ureña’s essay is introduced as part of this “Latin American Thoughts Series”. I was expecting some Cortázar and immediately ran into one: Queremos tanto a Glenda was what I found. Then, more epic Fuentes. Terra Nostra, which is a huge thing. Then came a lot of Juan Rulfo (the first and hitherto only Mexican writer I have systematically read). El llano en llamas, and El gallo de oro. I must confess that my first encounter with Rulfo didn’t leave too much of an impression.
Another manifestation of Bolaño’s popularity. The posthumously published El espíritu de la ciencia-ficción got its Mandarin version. And then another brilliant gem. César Vallejo’s Los dados eternos. Inexplicably, there is even more of Jorge Amado’s work. Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos and Gabriela, cravo e canela. César Aira, I think I probably read something about him in Perro Negro, also had his Los fantasmas translated into Mandarin. And let me cap off the journey with some fresh literary blood: Benjamín Labatut’s Un verdor terrible and Valeria Luiselli’s Papeles falsos.
This is my quick review of Latin American Literature’s footing in Shanghai’s culture scene. Exoticism engenders attraction but the deeper Chinese readers engage with Latin American literature the larger this cultural gulf pans out. The Mandarin translation once frustrated me during my first reading of Juan Rulfo and César Vallejo. Now, I’m more multilingual than ever and my lack of enthusiasm for Rulfo wasn’t finally alleviated although España, aparta de mí este cáliz is still a bit alien to me. Language isn’t the barrier but my narcissist obsession with understanding and a certain fetish for peculiarity. Novels tend to disappoint me, regardless of their language. Perhaps it is -as Borges would say- my own superstition as a reader. This personal “crisis” did sort itself out only when I started delving into Spanish poems.
Notwithstanding my distaste for some of the work of Latin American’s foremost poet laureate, politician and public intellectual; I ought to add that most of his rhythmic language has, by its nature, some affinity with me. I leave you with this: when I was on a cruise trip across the South China Sea, one particular line by Neruda, out of nowhere, started swirling in my mind. It was “Una herencia herida bajo el mar”, and you probably know that Shanghai literally means “Sobre el mar.”
Rafael Tsao is Perro Negro’s correspondent from main land China. He resides in Shanghai. A polyglot, a writer and cultural commentator with interest in cinema, art and literature.
Main image: The Wutopia or the Poetry Bookstore inside Sinan Bookshop in Shanghai.