Review: Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen

Oftentimes small literary presses will have an option for readers to buy a subscription for their books. When I discovered Two Lines Press I decided that buying one of their yearly subscriptions would be a great option for me and would also allow me to support this small press which publishes literature in translation. I bought the 2014 subscription and for $30 and I received three books as well as a copy of their journal.  For more information on their subscriptions, including the one for 2015, please visit their website: http://twolinespress.com/subscribe/.

My Review:
BeijingWhen the book opens, Dunhuang has just gotten out of prison after a three month sentence for selling fake I.D.’s.  Dunhuang, like many young people without a college degree or a vocation, has left his small town and is hoping to make some money in Beijing.  The streets of Beijing are rife with itinerant youth peddling anything from fake I.D.’s to fake college diplomas to pirated DVD’s.

This book opened my eyes to life in a city like Beijing with its cramped living quarters, awful dust storms and illegal trade.  When Dunhuang gets out of jail he has no where to go but he meets a woman named Xiaorong who sells pirated DVD’s.  He spends his first night at her apartment where he learns that she is terribly unhappy living in Beijing; she has just broken up with her boyfriend and is sad and lonely.  Dunhuang and Xiaorong rely on each other for physical and emotional comfort and eventually they become business partners by selling pirated DVD’s together. One gets the feeling that Dunhuang has a connection with Xiaorong that runs deeper than he is willing to admit.

Dunhuang is a natural salesman and immediately becomes successful peddling his DVD’s.  He has regular customers and he even buys books on cinema so that he can read up on different films that his customers might enjoy.  Two Lines Press also has a fantastic link on their website with information about many of the DVD titles that are mentioned in the book: http://twolinespress.com/a-dvd-playlist-for-running-through-beijing/.

The book is very fast-paced and mimics the ever moving and changing lifestyle of people like Dunhuang who live from moment to moment selling illegal contraband.  These street urchins never know when they might be chased by the police,  victims of theft, or thrown out of their living quarters.  The book only spans a few months and Dunhuang makes and spends several small fortunes and lives in no fewer than four different places.  I was surprised at the very tight living quarters that are allowed in a modern city.  At one point Dunhuang rents not even a room, but a bunk bed in a room that is shared with three other men.  He also rents a tiny room that fits a bed and a washbasin that is basically a tin shack.

The ending of the book is rather abrupt and not conclusive.  I found this fitting for Dunhuang and the lifestyle he has chosen for himself on the streets of Beijing.  One gets the feeling that youth like Dunhuang never really break this cycle of a roaming around a large city with no real goals for the future.

This is my first foray into Chinese literature and I am so glad that I came across Two Lines Press and RUNNING THROUGH BEIJING.  I enjoyed the book and found an interesting amount of information about what it is like to live in a large, modern city like Beijing.  I highly recommended this title and I am looking forward to the other two books in translation that I received with my subscription.

About The Author and Translator:
Xu Zechen is the author of the novels Midnight’s Door, Night Train, and Heaven on Earth. He was selected by People’s Literature as one of the “Future 20″ best Chinese writers under 41. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, he lives in Beijing.

Eric Abrahamsen is the recipient of translation grants from PEN and the NEA and has written for The New York Times, among others. In 2012 Penguin published his translation of The Civil Servant’s Notebook by Wang Xiaofang. He lives in Beijing where he hosts the acclaimed website on Chinese literature Paper Republic.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation

5 responses to “Review: Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen

  1. The only Chinese writer I have read is Can Xue whom I love, but her work exists in another reality. This does sound interesting. I would love to support more small indie American presses by subscription but the cost for international is so high (often double or more plus exchange) and then books take eons to get to Canada.

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  2. Sounds interesting. I’m not familiar with this publisher so I shall have to take a closer look at their list.

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  3. Very interesting to bring this new work from a small press to your readers. Contemporary fiction like this that would have a harder time becoming known without your excellent synopses and clear approach to reviewing. I don’t know how you do it, but thank you!

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  4. Having read and loved a couple of their books (especially Baboon), I’d been keen to read anything from Two Lines Press. This sounds interesting.

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