Translation by Eric Abrahamsen.
(San Francisco, CA: Two Lines Press, 2014)
I was a taciturn and grubby child, a pint-sized pessimist that preferred the company of animals and solitude to that of my family and friends. If not on horseback, I ran everywhere (at least until I hit that 13-ish, leg shaving, regular hair washing phase); I loped and galloped, sprinted and trotted – and on the best days, immersed in whatever current running scenario, I would leap into the air every four or five steps, as if jumping into an imaginary cosmos of suspended gravity. I was fascinated by that mid-air moment, amazed that I had time for whole thoughts and ideas before my foot hit the ground and I was off again. I craved that feeling of suspension, and the hope that I might just, on particularly good jump, simply float forever forward.
Xu Zechen has captured that same essence of weightlessness in his novel, Running Through Beijing. The story floats above the grey and gritty city landscape with the near breathless pace you might expect from the title. The characters and settings are evocative of a culture rampant with pragmatic optimism, and for true appreciation, it’s best consumed if the reader can set aside any culturally bounded assumptions of life-style, and what one should or shouldn’t, have or do, or have…in order to be happy. I don’t believe that Xu Zechen’s characters are surviving in spite of adversity, but rather embracing the challenge of it. And far from feeling sorry for them, I have a deep sense that I might have been born in a nation of entitled whiners.
The author begins the novel by introducing us to his main character, Dunhuang, an engaging and street savvy, but emotionally innocent, picaresque hero. Dunhuang has only just emerged from a three-month stint in prison; having been scooped up for hustling phony IDs with his partner, Bao Ding. The early narrative follows Dunhuang from the prison gates, through a sand storm, to the city, a walking-paced visual diary, as he reacquaints himself with freedom and allows the readers our first peek into his world.
Dunhuang didn’t know where he was headed. That seemed awful, when he thought about it. No place to go….And he was short of money, he only had fifty on hand, minus the nine he’d just spent on cigarettes. For now, he’d follow his feet, and worry about the rest tomorrow – he could always just burrow in somewhere for the night….Dunhuang took the cigarette from his mouth and whistled a bit to buck his spirits – this wouldn’t kill him.
The story picks up pace as Dunhuang assembles the stuff of life outside of prison, launches a new partnership selling pirated DVDs with the enigmatic and vulnerable Xia Xiaorong, a young women he meets within hours of his release. They share a meal and a bed for the night, but Xiaorong has only quarreled with her boyfriend, and Dunhuang must move on before he returns. He secures a place to live and embarks on a mission: finding Quibo, the girlfriend of Boa Ding. He combs the city knowing only of her involvement in selling fake IDs and her conspicuously ample backside.
He looked at countless asses over the next few days – big and small, fat and skinny, round and flat, overripe and undeveloped, shapely and shapeless – until he began to see cheeks even with his eyes closed.
The author manages to convey a striking humanity in these understandably jaded city dwellers, an improbable kindness that transcends their situation, and leaves the reader wondering; how can people so consumed by the fundamental business of survival be so ingenious in love and relationships? Xia Xiaorong longs for a home, child, a family in the countryside where she was raised. The acerbic Quibo hopes for financial security and independence, she holds them like a shield between herself and intimacy.
Qibao held Dunhuang. She said, “holding you feels really solid.”
“I’m skinny now,” Dunhuang said. “If I were fatter it would feel even more solid.”
“Shut up, you joker! I mean, when I hold you I feel anchored. Sometimes, when I am alone, I can’t cry, even when I want to.”
The beauty of good writing is, that without realizing it, we feel our way into the characters, we embody their struggles, feel their pain/hunger/love/lust – we smack our readerly lips and say “ahhhh…I know just how that is!”
When congestion and clogged transit system prevents him from reaching customers, Dunhuang begins to run. He moves through the grit and bustle of the city, he meets and resolves each challenge, with an acceleration of pace, energy and joy, like that moment in childhood when my feet left the ground and I thought I might float forward, forever, above and beautifully in control of my environment. But the now-latent pessimist in me (no longer grubby – mostly) is also noting with satisfaction, Dunhuang’s longing for attachment, for a relationship that will anchor him in the mad dash for survival. He seems vulnerable in spite of his adept navigation of street culture. He falls in deeply love with Xiaorong, and Quibo in turn, he struggles to earn the money to buy Bao Ding’s freedom and worries about the fate of a mysterious female client.
And that openness is the reader’s own pathway to attachment with a character and a culture, existing perhaps half a planet away. Xu Zechen’s story is simple, a handful of characters looking for a way to survive in Beijing; yet the characters are satisfyingly complex, with enough familiarity for the reader to engage, and enough humor, mystery and tension to carry us along on the journey.
Qibao started laughing. “You’re full of yourself right up to the eyebrows.“ Dunhuang laughed too. This damned girl had to have been squeezed our by a fox spirit, not another women. No question.
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Jody Handerson is a working writer and editor living in Boulder, Colorado with an enormous black cat, five bicycles and eighty-two pairs of shoes. She is a contributing editor to TLR.