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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Such is this World@sars.come

Hu Fayun

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Title: Such is this World@sars.come
Author: Hu Fayun
Genre: Novel
Written: (2004) (Eng. 2011)
Length: 451 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: from the publisher
  • Chinese title: 如焉@sars.come
  • Translated by A.E.Clark

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Our Assessment:

B : fine -- if somewhat forced -- picture of early twenty-first century China (and the growing role of the Internet)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 13/1/2011 Perry Link

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hu Fayun’s novel, written in a fluid and graceful style, also looks at the past, at "unofficial history that is not in the textbooks," and addresses the famine as well as a wide range of other issues: the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution, corruption, censorship, the massacre near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, the SARS epidemic, illegal detention centers, and much else. It also evokes the materialism, cynicism, and narrow nationalism of the current day. (...) Part of the appeal of Hu Fayun’s novel to Chinese readers seems to have been Ru Yan’s very attractive character." - Perry Link, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Such is this World@sars.come is not the catchiest of titles, but it is the literal translation of the Chinese one: as explained in the useful and extensive footnotes, in Chinese 'Such is this World' (如焉) is a homonym for the main character's name, Ru Yan (茹嫣) -- and the online 'handle'/screen name she uses when on the Internet; the confusing 'e' in ".come" is apparently also: "a punning reference to the coming of the SARS epidemic which shapes Ru Yan's experience both on the Internet and off".
       Ru Yan is a recently widowed woman whose son, Yang Yanping, graduates from college and heads abroad, to Paris, to continue his architecture studies -- and who leaves two things behind for her when goes: his old computer, which he has fixed up for her, as well as a puppy (which she also names Yang Yanping ...). Ru Yan "had never imagined she would have anything to do with computers and the Internet", but her very dutiful son patiently explains to her how it works and signs her up for an e-mail account and at an instant messaging site, so that they can easily stay in touch while he is so far away. Once he's gone, he also suggests she check out a website that's an online community "for middle-aged people", and which has a forum called 'The Empty Nest' "that's popular with parents of overseas students".
       Ru Yan immediately starts sharing her thoughts at the forum -- and is immediately a big hit. Soon enough, when the forum moderator needs someone to take over for a while, Ru Yan gets the job.
       From her mother, who lives in the south of the country, Ru Yan hears that: "there's a strange disease going around, a strange disease that no medicine can cure". Ru Yan is surprised she hasn't read or heard anything about it in the official media, but other southern friends confirm it. Ru Yan posts about it at her forum -- and suddenly finds that there is some information that the authorities don't want to have discussed online (or elsewhere).
       The disease is the respiratory infection SARS -- "atypical pneumonia, abbreviated as feidian, 'the atyp'" in Chinese --, which continues to spread. Ru Yan doesn't understand why the government doesn't want word to get out. She can't keep silent and continues to write online, slowly beginning to understand how the system works (and how much of a 'system' there is to information-control in China -- and what different forms it has taken over the past decades). Many are impressed by what she has to say: "How much potential lies hidden in this gentle woman !" Along the way she also meets others who have struggled to have their say -- and she learns about the power of the Internet.
       Some of the other sites she comes across offer an eye-opening experience:

Reading other articles on these sites, Ru Yan started to panic for real. It was the first time she'd ever seen writing that revealed and criticized people and events inside China so openly. By the standards instilled during her years of education, the posts were thoroughly reactionary.
     She phoned Damo about it.
     "Perfectly normal," he said. "What is abnormal is to be unable to read such material."
       In addition to her increasing online activism, Ru Yan also become involved with a politically powerful man, an open-minded and generous character who nevertheless represents officialdom. In addition, the backstories of several of the other activists that Ru Yan comes to know are also related at greater length, allowing for some discussion of the changes China has undergone over the decades, including during the Cultural Revolution.
       By making his protagonist a relatively naïve, sympathetic woman without much of an agenda, and by throwing in a bit of romance (complete with the know-it-all colleague who acts as everything from matchmaker to personal shopper) as well as simple domestic touches (the dog), Hu Fayun manages to dress up his didactic fiction quite well. Communication -- especially using the newest technologies, including instant messaging and video chats -- and the significance of writing -- whether by the late-blooming Ru Yan (whose talent is compared to: "a narcissus, for which long ago a tiny seed was planted and which takes forever to grow") to more academic types -- are constants throughout. One character, Maozi, now amusingly uses his writing ability in order to bribe officials -- anyone can offer money, after all, but few can ghost-write an article that can get published in a prestigious periodical, enhancing the status of the official who (supposedly) wrote it. There is a great deal of variety here, and if the storylines aren't entirely compelling it is nevertheless a perfectly fine novel of its times, presenting an interesting picture of near-contemporary China. The censorship issues -- and what information is generally available to citizens -- are likely not as striking to readers outside the country, and how Hu Fayun addresses these issues may seem rather tame, but it is nevertheless quite revealing.
       The extensive Translator's Notes -- more than fifty pages worth -- are particularly helpful, especially in explaining many of the Chinese details (from the political to the everyday). The text is also filled with references, subtle and otherwise, and these endnotes are also helpful in that regard.
       Such is this World@sars.come is, like its English title, a bit clunky, but breezy enough to make for decent reading. It is definitely more a work of fiction 'about China' than simply a work of fiction, but there's enough story here so that it doesn't feel like pure didacticism.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 August 2011

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Such is this World@sars.come: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Hu Fayun (胡发云) was born in 1949.

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