Book Review: The Fat Years

Chan Koonchung. Michael S. Duke, translator. The Fat Years. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2012. 336 pages.

This novel, written by a veteran Chinese journalist/writer, gives Westerners a glimpse of sorts into Chinese social psychology. Lots of people in the U.S. are fretting about the rise of China, and the possibility that the 21st century will be a “Chinese century.” There are fears about what this will mean for the American economy and our geo-political status. But it’s not all about us–we should also be thinking about what Chinese ascendancy will mean for the 1.2 billion (or so) people who call China home. This novel, I think, gives us a few insights.The Fat Years

First, I’d like to say that I really liked Michael S. Duke’s translation, as well as the endnotes that let curious readers better understand cultural and political references. Reading the book, you’re aware that the author isn’t writing in English–the idioms and constructions are just different enough to give you an idea that the ideas weren’t originally thought out in English (if that makes any sense at all to anyone but me). I could hear much of the dialog in a Chinese accent without, thank God, phonetic renderings of it.

The other thing that struck me about the novel was how easily it slips between straight narrative to quasi-essay musings on the rise of China. In most English-language books, this would look like completely ham-handed author filibuster, but it makes a ton of sense in context. The protagonist, a veteran Chinese journalist/writer, at one point talks about his familiarity with 19th century Russian literature, and having more or less neglected English literature. That made it all click: even though it’s written in Chinese, in many ways The Fat Years is a quintessentially Russian novel–you know, the ones where all the action stops for ten pages so a character can give a lengthy exposition of The Mission of Russia or something like that. These novels don’t have to be in Russian–Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged both culminate in these kinds of grand statements.

So on one level, the entire novel is a buildup to He Dongsheng’s explication of the Chinese Century, which is in and of itself a reason to read it. On the other, though, it’s a look at how the Chinese intellectual class itself views the rising position of China on the global stage and the growing self-confidence of the nation’s communist leadership structure. I’m sure it’s no spoiler to say that this isn’t necessarily good news for those with a soft spot for concepts like personal liberty and political freedom.

If you’re at all curious about what’s going on in China today (or at the very least one perspective on it), The Fat Years is a great book to read. If you’re looking for an action-filled spy thriller or something like that, you’re going to be disappointed, but if you want an insight into post-recession China, you’ll be very engaged.