Last year I read the novel Spaceman of Bohemia, a scifi tale of the Czech Republic’s first astronaut venturing into deep space for a dangerous solo mission, a man doing so trying to atone for his family’s communist past, who runs into trouble and meets an alien and thinks a lot about home. It was a good book, filled with lots of cool scifi shit and characterisation, and as well with vivid descriptions of Czech history, the architecture and atmosphere of Prague, and a narrative very concerned with what it means to be Czech. It was pretty good! And yet while reading it I had an inkling of something – not in a major way, not in a negative way, and not really in a way that impacted what I was reading but that nevertheless occurred to me: and when I finished the book and checked I was validated. Jaroslav Kalfar, the author of this funny, interesting and very Czech book is not in fact by the strictest legal definition a Czech: or rather he was, having left at the age of fifteen to live in the US, a year before the Velvet Revolution in fact. This struck me. I’m no expert in Czech literature, but what of it I’ve read has never been intensely concerned in a dominating way with what we might call ‘Czechness’.
Kalfar’s book is. From a thudding passage describing Prague’s Wenceslas Square as “the place where we took our nation back…where the heart of the Czech resistance launched its assault on the Nazis…where in 1989 women and men shook their keys as the…corpse of the Soviet-installed government pleaded with Moscow to order their tanks to shoot”, while probably any native Czech just thinks of it as “a big square” most of the time, to frequent references to things (girls, hills, the titular spaceman) as being ‘of Bohemia’, to at one point recounting the entire life of Czech hero and founder of Hussitism Jan Hus in internal monologue (the hero’s spaceship is, of course, called ‘JanHus1’) – Spaceman is a novel dripping with a conscious focus on what Czechness is and how our hero of the nation relates to it. The Czech Republic as “my country, the lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia”, is the real protagonist of the story, and our narrator Jakub is forever musing on his position relative to it, as the son of a detested local communist official – “I was not part of the revolution,” he muses, “I was a slogan left on the side of an abandoned building, a mum witness to changes in weather patterns, moods…I was the statue of Jan Hus…quietly observing Prague with turmoil in his heart…I was the lion of Bohemia drawn within the crest, the dark eagle of Moravia, the crown jewels resting in a display case inside the castle.” All very effective writing and character-building and so on. But all of this introspection on Czechness was what told me, in fact, that the author’s background was not exactly that of someone who had lived in the Czech Republic their whole life and spent all their life close to it. What we’re close to, after all, is often the kind of thing we tend not to notice so much.
Jaroslav Hasek’s towering classic The Good Soldier Svejk is one of my all-time favourite books, and much of its surreal, ironic anti-authoritarian spirit pervades Spaceman of Bohemia: and yet while by contrasting its ambiguously-intelligent Czech anti-hero Svejk, drafted into World War One to fight the Russians and playing the idiot to get out of it, with the bumbling tyranny of the Austrian officialdom around him it does make a very fine instance of the ‘Czech novel’, the Czech novel in the same way that Don Quixote is the Spanish novel and Moby-Dick the American, nothing much about this is an overt discussion of what it means to be Czech. At no point are there monologues, internal or otherwise, about Czech identity; the identity of the novel is spelt out through actions and scenes, not overt words. Spaceman of Bohemia, in contrast, is very concerned with these questions, and as indicated above its first-person viewpoint contains ample speculation upon them amidst the story’s broader course.
Is that a bad thing? No. While I would say I preferred Svejk (which is no insult at all to Spaceman, since Svejk is a classic of literary fiction) there is nothing wrong with the more recent novel’s very overt discussion over the questions of identity, nationality and a person’s relationship with them that it brings up. But it is a very different approach, and one I feel rests somewhat with the identity of the novel’s writer.
It’s something I encounter frequently as well in Chinese literature – there is a divide in tone and content between that of the mainland, what we might call again that ‘authentic’ Chinese writing, and that of those who have grown up not even in Hong Kong or Taiwan but in the diaspora, their Chinese nature ‘diluted’ by the presence of American, English etc. cultural experience. Very few of the mainland Chinese novels I’ve read deal with ‘China’ in that grand abstract way; while many of the diaspora books I’ve read either focus with intense detail on the protagonist’s personal relationship with ‘China’, or zoom out to some grand imagined mythology of say, the imperial past reinterpreted through a modern lens, grappling intimately with the clash between the author’s modern values and Chinese traditions (Shelly Parker-Chan’s She Who Became The Sun, published last year and about a gender-swapped version of Ming dynasty founder Zhu Chongba, is a very well-done example of this), the majority of mainland novels do not address these things and instead, as Svejk does with the Czech experience, tell a story dealing with them – if at all – in the background. Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls, the sad story of a cheerful countryside girl who travels to Shenzhen to work and gets roped into the dark underworld of the reform-era sex industry, is a very political novel but doesn’t in any way talk about the grand business of what it means to be Chinese in that same manner as Spaceman treats being Czech or indeed, She Who Became The Sun treats Chineseness (although being set in the Yuan dynasty it of course doesn’t use the term). Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy struck me similarly with the way it deals with sweeping things like the Cultural Revolution or the changing of Chinese society in response to the alien threat that forms the trilogy’s backstory, or the apocalyptic shit that goes on in its later parts – as matter-of-factly as possible.
For these books the national themes – the chaos and excitement of reform and opening and the experience of being a woman in the ugly patriarchal world of modern China, what the searing experiences of the twentieth century might mean blown up into universe-spanning, existential implications, respectively – are not national but simply themes. Is that a good thing? It might be. The ‘real’ Chinese literature is contained, after all, within these novels rather than those, however lovingly detailed and heartfelt, which come from outside of the country: you can probably learn more about the vibe of early reform-era China, its thrills and injustices, from Northern Girls, written by a woman who actually lived through that time, than for example from an equivalent novel written by someone who grew up in the US, who is to a greater extent imagining it. But ‘real’ should be viewed as a suspect term. Literature after all – art, in a broader sense – doesn’t exist to paint a ‘real’ picture of anything, and no artist whether from the motherland or outside of it seeks to do so; we shouldn’t talk of words like real and authentic but instead of differing perspectives. These are the perspectives of the visible and invisible place.
To someone from a place, that place is often invisible. A person’s surroundings are by default what surrounds them, not just physically but psychologically, and the place this creates is one that it’s very difficult to wholly look past. I made a similar point in my article about modern China’s ‘red culture’ and how many mainland Chinese today, irrespective of their conscious political feelings, have grown up with the realities of life under the Communist Party and so are generally accepting of them. In contrast to this, those from diaspora or Hong Kong/Taiwan communities largely shaped by the unhealed wounds of the civil war and the post-1949 experience of dislocation and confusion, growing up in a world defined largely by the grief of the ‘lost China’ of the mainland: to them these feelings are almost impossible to comprehend. To those looking in from outside the Communist Party and the history of China post-1949 can seem an unnatural, exceptional intrusion, that fascinates and repels in equal measure. Stories about China from outside thusly show it so, and focus so much more on dissent and tragedy and the high spectacle of life under the capitalist-communist regime, and in blunt barely-metaphor the brutality of authoritarianism and the struggle of the human spirit against this. Some of the lack of this in mainland fiction no doubt is censorship; some of it, given the similar trends in the literature of countries without China’s artistic controls, is an organic lack of interest in making these things too spectacular – because to mainland Chinese the experience of the revolution and its consequences is not a spectacle to wonder at but simply stuff they’ve lived through.
Again, this can be an issue. A consistent problem with the understanding of Chinese literature outside of China has been the preference on the part of overseas publishers for the kinds of stories which do highlight the politics of modern China openly and didactically, where novels banned in the mainland or written by dissidents, diaspora, exiles, ‘free’ Taiwanese/HKers etc. are much more marketable than mundane stories where things simply happen to people. I’m thinking of the rear cover of the English translation of Yan Lianke’s Serve the People, a satirical novel about the illicit relationship between a soldier and an officer’s wife during the Cultural Revolution, where it simply quoted a PLA internal directive about how the novel ‘slanders the army and Mao Zedong’ – a cheeky but also hollow bit of marketing, robbing the work of its actual power and simply doing in reverse what the Chinese censors who banned it did first, turning it into a work of greatness that owes its greatness not to its content but to its politics. This book was published in English, that blurb says, because the government doesn’t like it.
And while this is a more specific Chinese context it occurs also with non-English literature in general, where the more exotic, exciting and distinguishably ‘that place’ kind of writing tends to be an easier sell to money-hungry publishers than writing which is not. But such is life under capitalism, and this isn’t the fault of those writers of the visible place – my belief is that both are both valid and important. Guo Xiaolu is another Chinese writer of the visible place, whose books incorporate much of her perspective as a Chinese woman who moved to the UK a long time ago and has faced the difficulties both of dealing with artistic creation and free expression under the stiff Chinese censorship apparatus and of dealing with the culture shock of moving to and living in a country that still struggles muchly with intense xenophobia towards the non-white. Her work is indeed more dramatic about what makes China different – but it plays very well with the author’s cross-cultural experience, and incorporates the flaws and virtues of both countries into the narratives in a way that can resonate with anyone who has any experience of them together. In contrast, Liu Cixin’s scifi derives much of its strength for me from its treatment of Chinese politics and society not as things under a remarkable authoritarian bootheel but simply as how China is; the criticisms – where they exist – levelled at the country and its leadership are more powerful for being understated, not even the focal point of the story, which in and of itself is to tell a good story. But this does not mean there isn’t a place for novels that tell a good story, while also highlighting in the stark colours available to the outside the things that are cast in plainer shades in the more ‘authentic’ texts.
To go back to the Czech Republic for a moment, The Good Soldier Svejk in its long, rambling absurdism, its sweary, defiant but also ironic resistance in the face of horrific cruelty, captures the Czech idea better than maybe anything else in the world. Spaceman of Bohemia is not ‘authentic’ in the sense that its author’s perspective on that Czech idea is one of someone who has lived far from it and mixed it in with their own experience in the US, and that the idea of missing home and trying to define what exactly home is – for Spaceman’s protagonist his literal home life pre-mission and his traumatic upbringing in post-communist Prague, for the author perhaps some idea of a pure Czech existence he has never had, leaving communist Czechoslovakia just before its collapse – pervades the text, while of course our good soldier Svejk does not for a moment speculate on any of these things. As a real Czech who has only lived in Bohemia and never outside of it none of them would have occurred to him, and the oppression of the Austrians is not the poetic oppression of the Soviets and Nazis described in abstract in Spaceman but simply the mundanity of his daily life. In that sense Spaceman of Bohemia is not a novel about the real Czech experience.
And yet. In its talking so much about these things it creates art that would not be possible in the real Czech experience, that can in a way get at the ideas it discusses – those same ideas Svejk raises through the course of its narrative, Czech persistence in the face of oppression and the laughable, horrible face of authoritarianism – with a melancholy and thoughtfulness all its own. To the inhabitant of the invisible place, all these interesting things are interesting but don’t stand out; to the observer of the visible place the interesting things can, to be sure, be depicted wrongly or sensationally or inauthentically, but through this they can communicate something about that place that is hard to spot from inside. And inversely this also works, that from inside can often reflect a different perspective from outside – the melancholy of Spaceman’s adrift astronaut hero pining for a lost Czech dream, weighed down by the troubled legacy of the all-too-human compromises the socialist era scarred his family with in today’s world of national liberation, is very different to Hasek’s playful depiction of the Czech superman Svejk the trickster-spirit evading all Austrian attempts at suppression.
This is as true for the liberal democratic freedom-living Czech Republic as it is for censored, limited socialist China. While the relative lack of interest in modern Chinese cultural products abroad compared to say Korea or Japan is often suggested to be because of the mainland censorship system limiting art in some way, I would suggest that, although of course we can’t ignore the effects of this (both Sheng Keyi and Yan Lianke, vocal dissenters with much of the status quo, have had novels banned in the mainland and struggled with the usual censorship and political pressure, and in fact Northern Girls has had sensitive passages removed from its latest mainland editions a few years back), that another factor is just that mainland art does not always reflect, in these highly politicised times, the view from outside that the climate wants it to. The Zhang Yimou movie Hero, once seen as a classic of Chinese action cinema, is now discussed by some as an ugly propaganda picture because of its central and famous positivity regarding China’s once-maligned walking metaphor for Mao Zedong and semi-legendary first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Never mind the ‘authentic’ nature of its creation by Chinese artists according to a Chinese vision, and the artistry that went into it – it now represents an increasingly wrong China and so must be discounted.
Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, whose novels are often critical in absurd and satirical ways of modern China, has been criticized for his closeness to the government, and his winning of the Nobel was greeted with much uproar quite because of this. “Mo Yan’s language is striking indeed,” wrote American professor Anna Sun once in a review of Mo’s work, “but it is striking because it is diseased. The disease is caused by the conscious renunciation of China’s cultural past at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.” Or to quote publisher He Xiongfei: “Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature is a disgrace in the history of the Nobel Prize and may even be a conspiracy of the Nobel committee, with the aim of embarrassing the Chinese government.” Or our favourite judge of Chinese art, Ai Weiwei: “I think the Nobel organizers have removed themselves from reality by awarding this prize. I really don’t understand it.” What did Mo do exactly? He simply wasn’t dissident enough – by working with the authorities even in a relatively tacit form he had lost his right to represent ‘Chinese culture’. These days being born in the People’s Republic is a kind of original sin, and only by willingly and loudly dissenting can Chinese artists find forgiveness from the rest of the world. In western views of China the compromised perspective from the invisible place no longer matters, and it’s only the visible-from-afar view of those who have gotten away from the contaminating touch of The Party that really represents China. Presumably real Chinese art now remains confined to either that documentary about the Hong Kong protest movement made by the aforementioned Ai Weiwei, or maybe Badiucao’s Beijing Olympics protest NFTs.
But anyway. This extra political complication creates a unique situation which is not really present in the split between Czech and Czech diaspora, for instance, but does carry some interesting half-truth to it. In fact, in their dismissal of the very notion of an ‘authentic’ China written about by Chinese people, whereby the only judges of what constitute Chinese art are those who have adopted the correct political stance, the critics who disliked that Zhang Yimou directed the 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony or who ask Liu Cixin to tell us what he thinks about government policy in Xinjiang are close to a perverse understanding of the core of this discussion. Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, Sheng Keyi and other mainland authors can offer us a closer picture of some of the truths of modern China, but at once they may also not necessarily tell us the whole story – in art authenticity is a very vague notion. The critics of Chinese mainland cultural output maintain this is because of the very visible barrier of the Party, the censorship apparatus, and their own intense loathing of those things. In fact it’s true that even without them a view of the subject from within might in some sense give a more ‘real’ portrait but that this doesn’t necessarily create a greater or more true work. And it isn’t the whim of the mainland censors that makes this so but simply the nature of art, where being ‘real’ hasn’t been the point for most of human history. Just as state-sanctioned propaganda work or books written by those who’ve lived in one place their whole life offer us one image, dissident fiction and work from those who live away from the subject can offer us another, and both are ‘real’ in the same sense, carrying personal biases, concerns, and situational distortions. The quality of the work is the point, not where it came from.
But hold it, you say. Ain’t this a bit rich for a white man to be harping on about how authenticity doesn’t mean anything and we can make any art we want and etc., when we live in a universe where white people made Shadow Warrior and Mortal Kombat and named a Chinese girl Cho Chang? And this is very true, and something I think about often. If you want to get technical (and annoying) you could say that as someone who’s lived outside of their home country for close to a decade I have a little bit of the same mixed perspective on the United Kingdom as, say, Jaroslav Kalfar might have on the Czech Republic, that inside-and-outside vibe, knowing both at once, missing it and also having other things to compare it to in that way that means I don’t possess that pure, ‘authentic’ English vibe anymore. And yet very little of my fiction is about England. Usually I write about Asia – about Japan or China. In what is kind of writing about England, I find myself drawn again and again to the subject matter of our former colony Hong Kong, but this isn’t really the same thing.
Diaspora and dissident writers, whether Czech or Chinese or Korean or Irish or Russian etc., are pulled by that something missing they find within themselves to re-examine where they came from, to find out what’s missing and why. In the process they can show their distant homeland – removed from by space and time or by culture or by politics – from a new and fascinating angle. But I don’t do this, and I am not missing anything. I’m from the Anglosphere and we run the world. To speak of an English ‘diaspora’ would be to suggest that like all those other countries which have created a diaspora that we’ve had something done to us en masse to spur a flight from the homeland – but actually most of our miseries are most assuredly self-inflicted. And it’s because we run the world, because culturally it’s easy for me anywhere I go, that I can afford not to be pining for home in the same way.
I believe, to be honest, that there’s something inherently Anglo that either creates the most insular or most unsettled people anywhere. Either an Englishman decides that all of that outside of his home isn’t worth a look or he sets out to reinvent himself using bits and pieces of other people’s cultures, a privilege afforded to him by the endless confidence of being white and speaking the current lingua franca. This is different from the search for belonging that prompts usual “visible” fiction, for the push that leads to the subject is always less raw and emotive, and at its worst can seem an insincere cheapening, a fetishization of a subject that occurs when it’s merely treated as a plaything (see the cyberpunk genre and its cheap utilisation of Asian settings for a more visually interesting white story). There are exceptions – just for one I’m thinking of, James Clavell’s Asian Saga novels have their authentic seed within his time as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, and while inaccurate, racist and silly, at least can be seen as a sincere attempt by a white son of the empire to understand the myriad non-white places that empire had brushed past, destroyed and influenced in its long life. But the risk of being merely a kind of creative tourist exists, and is something I’m very conscious of. To put it simply, it shouldn’t be about the ‘authenticity’ of a cultural work, that is whether the artist sees the subject in a visible or invisible, positive or negative way – I think this is true – but rather the amount of respect the artist affords to their subject.
For a mainland Chinese citizen to write a great and true-to-life novel of reform China is very possible – for someone who grew up Chinese but outside of China, and even moreso for someone whose interest in China is emotive and personal but not cultural like myself, it would surely be possible to also write a great if less authentic novel on the subject – as long as the treatment respected the subject and took it seriously. It is this that makes Spaceman of Bohemia a good novel despite the obvious difference in approach to a more ‘real’, down-to-earth Czech novel like The Good Soldier Svejk. I’ve seen people make fun of the divide between the visible and invisible perspectives on a place before, contrasting the emotive, almost hysterical tone of the former (“ah, my lost homeland, world of this famous building and that important historical event! Whenever I eat our typical national food, I feel for you!”) with the matter-of-fact mode of the latter (where all these things are mentioned in passing if at all), and there have been people who see this endless angst over the relationship between writer and subject common in diaspora fiction as merely self-indulgent. Sometimes it can be.
But I think both perspectives, and needless to say even in some cases my own completely outside perspective, can have value. The key is respect. If a subject – whether country, time, culture or moment – is treated only as a lens for the writer to act out fantasies of either melancholy self-obsession or (in the case of white men, the privileged universal) self-escape, then the work will suffer. If, regardless of the identity of the observer, the subject is treated as something real, then there will be something of value within the resulting work. An artist’s first duty is not to themselves, or to politics, or the sensibilities of others. It is to their work. And despite this article sort of making a bit of fun of Spaceman of Bohemia, it is a very fine book. Go read it if you like good scifi and pretty descriptions of Prague.
And if you’re writing something then write it however you want, whether you want to highlight the mother country’s delicious foods and riveting music and how they lost that war a hundred years ago your grandpa told you about, whether you want to write a no-nonsense slice of life novel about a guy who lives under a bridge in an anonymous field in that country just like where you grew up, or whether you’re just doing a shitload of Wikipedia and book research on a place you visited once when you were in your twenties (it’s me). But take it seriously.
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