By Eric Abrahamsen, published September 7, 2007, 8:26p.m.
It was originally Gordon Fairclough’s article in the online WSJ that got me thinking about road-trip literature in China, and now on top of that, wouldn’t you know, it happens to be the 50th anniversary of Kerouac’s On The Road. On The Road is one of a few discrete chunks of foreign literature (others include the works of Borges and Milan Kundera) that, for various reasons of historical accident, floated across the sea and became trendy here. There are readers who wouldn’t know Hemingway’s beard if it turned up in their soup, but by god they could point out Vesuvio Cafe on a SF street map.
Fairclough’s article mentions a growing road-trip literature in China, and cites “‘Go the Distance Now,’ a book chronicling five years spent traveling around China by car.” One travelogue does not a road-trip literature make, but it started me thinking – Kerouac’s popularity must point to some kind of latent interest in this sort of thing, and really, China is the perfect country for road literature. It’s obscenely large, for one. It sports unbelievable geographical and cultural diversity (anyone who believes in the homogeneity of the Chinese, including the Chinese themselves, needs to take a road trip). It’s traditional culture encourages stasis, and trepidation about venturing away from home. The place is ripe for some maverick to demonstrate the heady joys of having the wind in your hair. Actually, a fair number of younger, middle-class adventurers are discovering that for themselves, but as far as I know they have yet to find their bible.
So what have we got? Journey to the West aside, Ma Jian’s Red Dust is probably the closest thing there is to a road-side portrait of China. But it’s an awfully political book, and I wonder how many people actually read it inside the country. Xu Xing’s You Can Have Whatever’s Left, a picaresque about a couple of rogues wandering the country, definitely qualifies. I suppose even Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain counts, although that struck me less as road literature and more as one man’s tiresome journey through his own angst-ridden impotence (ahem).
How about it? What am I missing?