In Running through Beijing, author Xu Zechen lifts the shiny veil of technology, architecture, highbrow culture, and the world metropolis status often placed on Beijing and offers a fast-paced and very humane glimpse at the lives of the small-time criminals that populate the city’s streets and form the core of the town’s underground economy. The novel, published by Two Lines Press, uses simple language and straightforward storytelling with a few touches of slang to bring the life of a petty criminal to the forefront.
Dunhuang is a twentysomething who has just been released from prison after doing a few months for selling fake IDs in the streets of Beijing. Besides his freedom, the trip to prison cost him all his money and the momentum he’d been able to build for his illegal business. Now, with his friend and partner Bao Ding still inside, he has barely enough money for a meal, no friends, and no place to go. To make matters worse, all his old connections seem to have vanished and he can’t fathom a way of breaking back into the business despite it being as rampant as ever. On his first night out, Dunhuang meets Xiaorong, a pretty, young woman who makes a living selling pirated DVDs on the streets, and quickly falls into both an unexpected romance and a new business venture that’s just as shady and risky as his previous one. A brief period of something akin to normalcy follows, but it ends abruptly when Xiaorong’s on-and-off boyfriend steps back into the picture with an apology. Once again homeless and with the idea of getting Bao Ding released from prison haunting him, Dunhuang is forced to make a new life for himself while dealing with the craziness and dangers that Beijing, two women, a crazy landlord, and his business have to throw at him.
Xu Zechen is at the top of the list of young authors who are infusing China’s literary scene with buzz-worthy narratives. His work has been translated into German, Korean, English, Dutch, Japanese, and Mongolian and he has received many awards for his novels, which include Midnight’s Door, Night Train, and Heaven on Earth. Despite his impressive resume, the most exciting element of Zechen’s career is what he does with Running through Beijing: offering readers a brutally honest look at the crime-ridden underbelly of the world’s most populous city. However, instead of turning the narrative into a dark, vicious thing, the author opts for a look at crime that balances danger and violence with a healthy dose of humor. For example, Dunhuang buys a stolen bicycle, and someone steals it from him after just one ride, so he calls the guy who sold it to him an blames him:
“Only you knew that bike!”
“Fuck you, shit for brains! If I only dealt in bikes I knew, I’d be out on the street!
“So how was my bike stolen?”
“Ask the thief! Ask your lock!” The suit was getting mad, too. “You think they come with a lifetime guarantee, you asshole?”
Running through Beijing walks a fine line between a fast-paced noir and a Chinese reinterpretation of the most vicious “romantic” scenes in Woody Allen’s filmography. From noir, the narrative borrows the quick prose, criminal elements, and down-and-out storylines of each character. From Allen’s well-known comedic aesthetic with a touch of sourness, the book gets the brutal/humorous interactions between the characters and the impossible loves. Despite the fact that the novel offers enough meeting points to merit the preceding comparisons, Running through Beijing is more a unique animal than a pastiche of known elements. For example, Dunhunag is a man of the streets, and so are the women in his life, which sets this part from any other romantic comedy. When they clash, harsh words fly, doors are slammed, egos are bruised, and, at least in one instance, slaps are exchanged. There is a slightly misogynistic approach to women in the text, but it comes from the lack of education of the characters and not from the author. Likewise, crime is presented as a natural byproduct of life in a metropolis where opportunities are scarce and everyone is out looking for a quick, easy way to put some yuans in their pockets, including every young mother that approaches Dunhuang in street:
“When he reached the other side of the street a few women came up to him, every one of them—how bizarre—carrying an infant. They said:
“Need an ID? Or receipts?”
“Since when do you sell receipts?” asked Dunhuang.
“We’ve always sold them!” They replied. “What do you need?”
“I used to sell IDs,” he said, “but we never sold fake receipts.
The women exchanged glances. One of the infants started crying, and the woman holding him snapped, “What are you bawling about? Little asshole!” The other women glared at Dunhuang and walked off. He was secretly pleased, thinking Shit, that was actually meant for me! He really hadn’t heard of selling fake receipts before—apparently more and more people were squeezing reimbursements for expenses out of the government these days.”
The lifting of the veil is something that Zechen is both nonchalant and relentless about. It’s obvious that he set out to tell a story about a guy trying to rebuild his life after prison and not to expose Beijing’s darker side in a voyeuristic way. That being said, he unflinchingly tackles a wide array of taboo subjects like sex, theft, academic competitiveness, and how the prison system is easy to deal with if you have enough money to grease some palms. A fine example of this is porn. Dunhuang sells pornographic DVDs, which Xiarorong refuses to sell and hides under her bed. He has to approach each sale from a unique angle and using creative euphemisms because no one wants to be open about the fact that they consume porn. However, the movies, which are more expensive than regular films, sell very well.
As with all translated novels where the essence of the narrative appears to be intact, I would be remiss not to add at least a sentence giving translator Eric Abrahamsen kudos for his outstanding work.
In Running through Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China loses its glossy veneer and appears to readers like a sprawling urban space plagued with construction and its byproducts where crime can be found in every corner and dark alley and where finding a good place to live is almost impossible if you’re not wealthy. In one of the fastest developing nations in the globe, there are plenty of people who are left behind, who live on the proverbial wrong side of the track, and Zechen is not afraid to go there and show readers the way. The result is a novel that chips away at the China mystery and makes the nation just a tad more universal and slightly easier to imagine.