Saturday, September 28, 2013

The devil you know

As I sat down at Pret for my lunch I couldn't help but read the notice staring at me from the eating bench. It candidly informed me that my money spent at Pret is for a good cause. It is going to help the homeless.

It was perhaps surprising how, after reading that, I wasn't more excited about my jalapeño chicken hot wrap. Instead I just felt vaguely guilty. Here I am, enjoying my instant gratification lunch, while others have to go hungry and sleep in the dirt.

But it got me thinking about business. There was a time when businesses were into making money, and had no qualms about it. Having the moral upper hand was easy when they were so obviously evil, money grabbing monsters. Now they do charity, philanthropy, and even save the environment. All while showing me up for the gluttonous fraud that I am. Surely that's no way to treat your customers!

So I dutifully had a google to see what Pret gets up to and there it was, they partner with plenty of charities and support worthy causes. Maybe it's my viewpoint that needed to change. If I imagined that Pret is working on my behalf, making donations like a benevolent angel, I would become a moral agent by proxy and will feel inner peace.

Unfortunately, I felt more confused than enlightened (as my participation is so ephemeral, it was perhaps more of an impression than a feeling). My moral compass started spinning while searching for the magnetic North of modern business ethics. Was this company a devil in monk's robes, or were they the saints they want to appear as? Or merely loveable rogues?

To be honest, I hardly know, and probably don't even care. The fact that Pret appears to care, when all I wanted was a hot wrap and somewhere to escape the office for a few minutes, did little for my self esteem. It is just a bit too neat. If I spend my money at Pret the world becomes a better place... seriously?

Pret targets the middle class business crowd, and by implication endorses its values. That, ultimately, may have been the real source of my uneasiness. It is not entirely Pret's fault. But by making us feel we are contributing to solutions for the world's problems, we have even more reason to be complacent. We have even less incentive to make a change in our own lives.

Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't, even if it is doing an angel's work.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A look at Wang Meng's short stories

My favourite cafe near the office also happens to be a bookshop serving divine home made cakes. It is here that I picked up a Panda Books copy of "The Butterfly and Other Stories" by Wang Meng a few weeks ago. It is an old school paperback printed in 1989. A slightly grainy and faded front cover - just the way we like our old school paperbacks - shows a printed painting of a butterfly with flowers. The back cover, in turn, sports a black and white photo of the author wearing horn-rimmed glasses while looking somewhat serious and rather distinguished, his mouth half-open as if he is about to say something.

A description of the author's works pronounces him "one of China's major contemporary writers". The preface further introduces Wang Meng's controversial early story "The Newcomer in the Organization Department", which "became the subject of an intense criticism campaign .. [which] produced a nation-wide debate"

With such a reputation I was sure to find something exciting inside the covers. Indeed, I was imagining a modern literary treasure barely known about outside China!

This compilation focuses on stories written more than 20 years after the controversial "The Newcomer in the Organization Department". Wang Meng was "rehabilitated" through labour for 8 years (from 1963), and did not publish his writings again until after a change in the political climate. It is against this backdrop of information that I plunged headlong into the first story, "A Spate of Visitors". It was followed by "The Butterfly" - without a doubt the best of the later bunch, and in some respects on a par with the early work “The Newcomer in the Organization Department”.

The first thing the reader realises is the extent to which Party ideology (of the communist party) and social life in China go hand in hand. It is a fact that's impossible to ignore in these stories. Politics and ideology suffuse the thoughts of characters and guide their actions. For instance in "The Young Newcomer" the main character is preoccupied by the slack application of Party principles at the sack factory. It disturbs him deeply and he is determined to put this right. He talks to his superiors about it, expecting them to act. To his surprise they are reluctant to do anything and their approach, which sounds reasonable and pragmatic, is mostly self-serving smoke and mirrors. After listening to one of his superiors explanation he comes away perturbed.

"This statement, so much at variance with the Party lectures he had attended at the primary school, astounded Lin." (p. 210)

Wordy facades are a smoke screen to mask characters' inertia and self-serving attitudes. In “A Spate of Visitors”  the main character, Ding Yi, decides to stop the rot at his factory and starts his initiative by firing a particularly lazy worker. Unbeknownst to him the worker – Gong Ding – is a distant relation of the county' first secretary. People from near and far suddenly come to visit Ding Yi in an attempt to persuade him to be less harsh on Gong Ding. Cronyism is rife and those in power protect their kin even when it is detrimental to business (and, by extension, the Party). This attitude is clear in one of his visitors' advice:

'So we say, leaders' power, their likes and dislikes, their impressions, are of vital importance. They cannot be overlooked and very often play the decisive role. We are realists, not utopian socialists like Owen and Fourier.' (Ding Yi thought: Am I a utopian socialist? This label doesn't sound too bad.) … 'Don't make a gross error, brother. Be statesmanlike. Cancel your decision and invite Gong Ding back.” (p. 29)

Before firing him, Ding Yi observes Gong Ding's ineptitude with a simple matter-of-factness. He follows through with action almost immediately.

For one thing, this young man had stayed away from work for four months without asking for leave. For another, he came bold as brass to the factory to demand gluten, and if given none cursed or beat the man in charge […]

Ding Yi asked the Party branch committee, Youth League committee, trade union, personnel office and all the other departments to discuss Gong Ding's case. Though he prodded them three times a day, it took them a month and a half to agree to his proposal that this recalcitrant worker should be dismissed." (p. 24)

Ding Yi's success in this regard stands in contrast to “The Newcomer”'s Lin who, being a newcomer and without authority, has to go around the houses to be taken seriously. Nevertheless they both address a similar issue, namely corruption. From this we infer that the author's concern has remained steadfast through the years.

In "The Newcomer" the young Lin's idealism manifests as a puritan adherence to Party line. He is clearminded and conscientious. His lack of experience does not mean he loses sight of his ideals, and he is not entirely disillusioned when at first he does not succeed. Instead it tempers his expectations and he becomes more realistic as time goes by. Once he achieves some success, however, his confidence begins to soar. He wants to go all the way, and when an opportunity finally presents itself to speak to the leading cadre, he is eager to take it. The story ends with him knocking on the cadre's door.

"With determination, he knocked impatiently at the door of the leading comrade's office." (p. 239)

In Ding Yi's case the confidence is there from the start. We are left in no doubt as to the correct moral position. It is the other characters who are portrayed as colluding to uphold the status quo of corruption. This is a sign of a mature writer who is confident of his aim. In this respect the story achieves a beautiful simplicity. More and more people come knocking on Ding Yi's door to advise him on the matter, but he holds firm. In the end, it is to his credit.

By December, the fame of the paste factory really had the fragrance of roses. It had become a model for all the small enterprises in the province.” (p. 29)

When he addresses a room full of comrades to report his experience at the paste factory his speech is met with "thunderous applause".

The book is aptly bookended by these two stories, “A Spate of Visitors” and “The Newcomer in the Organisation Department.” Whereas the latter reveals the optimism and ambition of youth, the former is a more assertive, mature statement. However “The Newcomer's” willingness to challenge those in power was a more audacious statement in its day. On the one hand one could commend the author for remaining steadfast in his values, but where is the spirit that made him an exciting voice when he started out? That independence of vision is not particularly evident in the later works.

The introduction mentioned innovation in these short stories and even compared them to Chekhov's writing. Perhaps it is a question of the untranslatable, but I could not see much evidence of innovative writing. This is not to say the stories are lacking in merit. Not at all. I found them a clear portrait of a period in 20th century Chinese history that lives up to some of the stereotypes Westerners have encountered about towing the party line, the hard life of the peasants, and solidarity with the proletariat. But towards the end I was feeling that sense of disappointment when something promised more than it delivered.

Wang Meng's characters are sensitive to those who work hard and endure difficult lives. But because it is often stated in a way that glorifies the party ideology it does appear to ring a little hollow after a while. The pattern is predictable, and in political terms Wang Meng's writing seems of the revisionist type. As already pointed out, one also has to question whether his later writing is still revisionist and not merely upholding the status quo. In that respect one might even, with irony, say that it is self-serving due to his own political status (self-serving characters are often criticised in the stories).

After “The Newcomer in the Organisation Department”, “The Butterfly” is probably the best story. It moves backwards and forwards in time in a sequence that is occasionally disconcerting but ultimately weaves a memorable portrait of a man who – again – was once in power, then fell from favour and had to be rehabilitated, and finally was reinstated to a high rank.

The main character, Old Zhang, is clearsighted about his (former) failings. One gets a clear sense of the naïve optimism of his youthful self; his inability to keep his wife happy despite being an important official; the tragic loss of his first child partly due to his own continuing absence at home; and his inability to foresee his own political fall from grace.

I ask to be tried.

You are innocent.

No. That train's clattering is a dirge for Haiyun. …

She sought you out. She loved you. You gave her happiness.

I ruined her. I neglected our first son. I can't even remember his features. I wounded Dongdong, I understand that now.” (p. 61)

Old Zhang makes a trip to the countryside to visit his son Dongdong from his first wife Haiyun. However he is also making the trip to see if he can persuade the woman in his heart – Qiuwen – to marry him. She took care of him when he was sick during rehabilitation. Although he can go in style as an official, he decides to go as a common man – as Old Zhang. On the way he rediscovers all the old discomforts - and a few new ones, owing to his expectations as an important official. At the same time it affords him the space to reminisce. 

This impersonation intermingled with the flashbacks is stylistically the most innovative aspect of any of the stories. It also has a semantic purpose. By playing the role of the common everyman in the countryside, Old Zhang provides us with a window into their world while embodying the virtue of humility. The lesson we are meant to draw is that a person in power should not lose touch with his roots, even if they are humble; while at the same time power is nevertheless a responsibility that one should take seriously. He does not give up his status, but he is willing to forgo his privileges – at least for a while.

However sensitively it is meant, the subtle moralising in favour of Party ideals and the proletarians in the countryside merely reinforces the ideological undertones. In his later work Wang Meng appears to frame societal problems within the same ideological framework as their solutions. The impulse of freedom, for instance as seen in the young love of "Kite Streamers", resolves when the community recognises the lovers as one of their own. One ultimately feels that the stories uphold the status quo, and any potential dark side is already rehabilitated and included

The moralising tone – sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle – is likely to feel patronising to many Western readers not used to this style. When Old Zhang thinks back on his first love, Haiyun, he likens her to a white flower. In that gently patronising way she is considered innocent and too young.

You were crushed like this, weren't you, Haiyun? Love, hate, joy and disillusionment kept you trembling. You were always as transparent, as fragile as a child.” (p. 36)

In his old age, “Qiuwen had been the sun in the evening of his life.” He hoped to secure her hand in marriage, but she turned him down during his visit to the village. When he returns to his official life he feels both familiar and out of place. There is a distance between him and other people that his rank cannot fulfill.

He was back in a place where all who knew his rank would smile at him […] He put on the lights. The walls and floor were spotless as usual, as if polished every day. He was back. He sat down on a sofa.” (p. 40).

This is near the beginning of the story, but chronologically it is at the end. When we read to the end we pick up the thread again, but this time we are much wiser to his thoughts and feelings. At the end he thinks of his responsibilities more than his disappointment with Qiuwen. Indeed, one is left with the impression that love – again – takes second place to the responsibilities of an official. 

How well I'm being looked after. Isn't it my duty to see to it that everybody has a better life?” (p. 99)

With love not taking up his energy any further, his appetite is equal to the task that awaits him.

There was a list of problems requiring immediate attention. He picked up a pencil to go through this material, immersing himself in it. It seemed many people were watching him, supporting him, hoping great things of him.

Tomorrow the pressure of work would be even greater.” (p. 101)

The outcome suggests that love was a sacrifice worth making in favour of official responsibilities.