This is the tenth chapter of City Tank by Qiu Huadong, summarized and partially translated. (Previous entries: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 9.)
But the next morning, that dark princess told me that she was in love with me and wanted to be with me. It put the fear in me. I didn't want to get involved with her. This girl might've been capable of lying about being the princess of an African tribe, but she revealed our secret almost immediately. When Gai Di woke up still reeking of liquor and bile, she was right there, telling him what had happened. It infuriated Gai Di, who had considered her his girl. He pulled himself to his feet, ready to fight. "Gai Di," I said, slowly backing up, "it's not like that. I just fucked her. One time. Just cool it." He looked like he was still ready to kill me. Apparently he was in love with her. I ran for the door.
I'd never been involved in that kind of thing before. The idea of fighting over a girl was completely foreign to me.
I went looking for Zhou Sese and found him in his room, deep in conversation with three Indian men. All three wore identical robes, just like you see Indians wearing in the movies. They were skinny, with big eyes, dark skin, and messy little beards.
They were talking about the Vedas.
"Gai Di's gonna kill me. He's got a girlfriend named Molly. I heard she's the daughter of an African chieftain or something. All of a sudden, she's in love with me. She wants to be with me. I came looking for you."
Zhou Sese laughed and said, "Desire will be what kills you someday. Come and talk with my Indian friends. You need to take a dip in the sea of eastern wisdom. It might help you learn to control these urges."Some time with the poet calms Zhu Wen down enough to get him back out and about, but it’s not long before he’s hit with something else.
A couple days later, my dick started to hurt. When I pulled it out for a closer look, my urethra was swollen shut, and when I started tugging on it, a bunch of stinking yellow pus came out. My heart sank. I had fallen victim to the epidemic of STDs that had swept the city. It was gonorrhea. I was sure of it. I never thought it could happen to me. It scared the hell out of me. I squeezed my dick until the whole thing was red as a carrot. At that moment, my dick looked like I felt: beaten down by the world, sad and scared. The pus that had started as a few drips turned into a steady trickle. The pain was unbearable. I felt like I was walking around in a dark cloud. I hated myself intensely.
When I told Zhou Sese, he jumped backwards. "Stay away from me. I don't want to be infected, too. I'm not letting you use my towels anymore, either." I was completely alone, cut off from the rest of the world, and I had brought it all on myself. But I must've gotten it from Molly. I was going to be leaking pus from every orifice, all because of her. Women like that are like a toilet seat. If you give in and sit down on them, you're going to be marinating in germs. I could curse her all I wanted, but it was my own fault. Before that, I'd had two voices in my head. One was the voice calling me forward, telling me to keep swimming, like a sperm, toward the womb of reality. Another voice was calling me to find a new set of spiritual values to approach the new age. Calling me! Pulling me this way and that! But as soon as the pus started flowing, I lost all hope. I felt like I had been sent into exile.He goes and gets a shot at the clinic advertising on every hutong bathroom wall, which promises imported Western medicine that turns to just be penicillin. He goes to apologize to Gai Di, who’s dealing with his own case of the clap. Gai Di launches into a tirade about Molly, suggesting that one day promiscuous foreigners will one day infect them with AIDS, etc. On his way home, Zhu Wen runs into Yan He 严河, a photographer who has been mentioned a few times but hasn’t made it into my summaries. Yan He offers him some great advice on dealing with the aftereffects of gonorrhea and also offers him the chance to come along with him on a trip to photograph in the countryside.
Yan He was the definition of wandering artist. He was a tall man with long jet black hair, and I never saw him without his dark sunglasses. He was twenty-five that years, but he still looked like a boy. There was a purity to him—and that smile, as if he found everyone and everything around him a source of great amusement. "In all my work," he told me, "I stand on the side of humanity in facing down materialism." Yan He had been around the world, traipsing through Europe, up and down the Americans, and wandering across Australia. Chinese artists had begun spreading out around the world, and he seemed to know all of them, so he could always rely on an invitation. "All of a sudden one day, an American artist happened to ask me about the Lama Temple. I couldn't even answer him. I was born here, my parents died here, and I'll probably die here, too... But how the hell is it even possible, that I didn't know the first thing about the Lama Temple? When I talked to these foreign artists about Beijing, I was trying to come off like it was just any other place. I was talking about McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Neapolitan pizza, Turkish kebab, Japanese food, postcolonial food culture! I felt ashamed of myself." When he returned to China the last time, he decided to devote himself to photographing the scenery of the country. Once he was done, he planned to head back out into the world and show them what China was really like.Then there’s a lengthy explanation of a piece of installation art—Musical Jiaozi—that Yan He, which involved heating up vinyl records and moulding them into the shape of jiaozi. It’s sort of funny, but let’s get back to the story.
When Yan He and I were ready to leave, I started thinking about Yan Tong, back in that godforsaken town she was teaching in. She told me that she'd go crazy without me. I had gotten a letter from her, telling me she was pregnant. That was after she left Beijing the last time. "I want to have the child," she wrote, "but I want to know what you think." I wasn't really sure yet.He heads out with Yanhe.
Our trip had us going south, heading for the most famous natural scenery in the country. Yan He had raised enough money to take care of our expenses, and we could usually fly between destinations. We went to: Taishan, Laoshan, Zhongshan, Yuntaishan, Yandangshan, Putuoshan, Tiantaishan, Huangshan, Jiuhuashan, Tianzhushan, Wuyishan, Jinggangshan, Lushan, Jigongshan, Hengshan, Wudangshan, Emeishan, Huashan, Maijishan, Tianshan, Kunlunshan... We wandered for three months, spending most of our time up in the mountains. My anxiety lifted. I felt a new energy. My faith in myself was restored.The rest of the chapter is taken up mostly with stories from Yan He about his various adventures.
I often hear criticisms of Chinese novels that mostly boil down to a lack of editorial assistance. Working on these summaries and excerpts, I guess I’m editing things: I’ve included the fight with Gai Di, the STD, and Yan Tong’s pregnancy, although they take up relatively little of the chapter, and I’ve summarized and translate a very small sliver of the Yan He material, which I find excruciatingly dull. The description of Yan He's Musical Jiaozi installation gets far more detailed treatment than the revelation that Zhu Wen's girlfriend is pregnant. I understand Zhu Wen is supposed to be a piece of shit, and I guess that's why it gets such a brief mention—but do I need two paragraphs on LPs folded into dumplings?
But how true is it? Are Chinese novel under-edited? I don't know. I'm in the process of editing a translation of a particularly thick and sprawling Chinese novel in English translation, and the issues I see with it are not often down to under-editing. I think with certain writers, they are aiming for precisely the effect that comes across as under-editing. Chinese novels tend to move at a different pace. With some writers, I think you can see here the influence of all the big 19th century Russian and English novels that they grew up reading, moreso than the influence of local traditions. I don't know. There's more tolerance for diversions, I guess, and less of a rush to get to a conclusion.
I can’t tell if I’m getting tired with the novel as a whole or if it's just this chapter that has been a struggle. Maybe I'm running out of interesting things to say. I don't know. But, for anyone still following this, this desultory entry takes us to halfway through City Tank.
The Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club will return in February.