The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung (review)

In translation theory, there are two main factions: the “naturalizers” and the “foreignizers” The naturalizers think that literature should be translated in a language that feels natural to the reader, as if it had been written originally in their language. The foreignizers, on the other hand, think that the best way to honour a text is to keep the translation as close to the source language as the target language will allow. In other words, the first group would have the English sound English, while the second would have English sound as Chinese as it can.

The Fat Years is definitely a case of foreignization, and I think the bad reviews of this book don’t really take into account that this was written in Chinese. Not only is there the strange rhythm and sound of Chinese echoing through the English, but Western readers are probably also unaccustomed to the foreign structure of a Chinese text.

I don’t know much about Chinese narrative structure–all that I know is that it’s different, very different, from our Western conception of a story. Despite the definite Western influences of this novel (mystery narrative, science-fiction), the novel feels as foreign as, I expect, visiting Beijing would.

Yes, it has a lot of exposition and not much action. Yes, the last part of the novel, the long speech by He Dongsheng, seems to go on forever and ever. But there’s a pleasure in reading this–a pleasure of, somehow, listening to another tongue, another culture, and hearing it in English in your head.

The Fat Years is the story of Taiwan-born writer Lo Chen who, one day, sees an old female friend, an ex-judge and now career activist Little Xi, who doesn’t seem to be as happy as he is. Because everyone in Beijing is very happy. She, and another old friend, tell him that there’s a month missing in China: 28 days in 2011 that disappeared from collective memory, and that only a few of them can remember. Chen’s doubts are aroused, and he seems to lose the happiness that he sees all around him. There begins a quest to find the missing month, among political intrigue, elite ultranationalist student shenanigans, underground Christian churches and, eventually, love. It’s the conflict between choosing to live “in a counterfeit paradise or a real hell”. Which one would you choose?

This is definitely a novel for the intellectual-minded. Koonchung presents a lot of political and economic analysis–either to educate the Western reader or to wake up the Chinese one, I’m not really sure. But, according to the translator, it’s not that farfetched, except for a few details. If you know nothing about China, you’ll be illuminated. If you know a little, or a lot, you’ll probably find the point of view interesting.

The Fat Years asks a lot of difficult questions that even Westerners should grapple with. How much freedom do we really have? Is the government really working in our interest? Is democracy a political system doomed to failure because it cannot achieve anything “big”?

If you like non-stop action, stay away from this book. You’ll get bored. However, if you enjoy a text that plays with high political stakes and isn’t afraid to call a dog a dog, I strongly suggest you grab a copy.

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