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Book Review: I Am Liu Yuejin
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By Edmund Backhouse

You may have seen the movie posters for I Am Liu Yuejin (Wo Jiao Liu Yuejin) around town – the image of a cross-eyed face anxiously watching a ticking bomb decorates DVD stores and movie theaters all over Beijing. But while the movie may be more visible than the book upon which it was based, the novel has garnered far more critical acclaim. Written by Liu Zhengyun and published three months before its celluloid sibling, I Am Liu Yuejin follows the adventures of a chef from the countryside struggling to make ends meet in Beijing.

The story of Liu Yuejin begins and ends with a flash disk. When Liu chases down a man who stole his bag, the fleeing thief tosses a different stolen handbag to Liu – within which the flash disk lies quietly, containing dark secrets of the elite businessmen from whom it was taken. Thus begins a labyrinthine tale of businessmen, crooks and low-lifes obsessed with finding the disk – and Liu with finding his money.

In certain aspects, Liu Zhengyun’s writing echoes that of Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature. Like Lu’s The Story of Ah Q (1921), Liu’s story of, er, Liu, follows the life of an uneducated bumpkin whose daily routine is explored in all its tedium, even as he encounters some unexpected obstacles. The author has been celebrated as a leader in the “neo-realism” (xin xieshi) movement – and like Lu Xun (the architect of early 20th century baihua – plain language), he strives for flowing and highly readable prose. Liu is successful in this quest, and at the same time, his thirst to give a voice to the “dregs” of society opens up a door through which we peer into the quotidian trifles of cooks and other tradespeople who make the cogs of this country turn.

(That's Beijing May 25,2008)

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