By Eric Abrahamsen, published
A recent review from the NYT Sunday Book Review begins like so:
Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s wonderfully stylized new novel, “Running Away,” begins with a question: “Would it ever end with Marie?” That’s only fitting for a book that leaves so much unanswered — we never learn the narrator’s name or occupation or, indeed, why his relationship with Marie, his Parisian girlfriend, is tanking. Those aren’t the only riddles, either. From the outset, the narrator fails to divulge why Marie has asked him to deliver $25,000 to a Shanghai associate, Zhang Xiangzhi.
Now I may be afflicted with some occupational disease here, but to me the only thing that stands out in that paragraph is the fact that an author with a French name, writing an English-language thriller, has not only chosen to set part of his international storyline in China, but has given a major character a Chinese name containing two "zh"s and the dreaded "x".
We are often assured, perhaps spuriously, that one of the drag factors on the acceptance of Chinese literature abroad is pinyin: those spiky, unpronounceable names with their "Q"s that lack "U"s and "Zi"s that you just know, with the dread certainty of the unprepared test-taker, aren't pronounced "Zee". If these warnings are to be believed, our poor readers, upon encountering a name like a bad Scrabble hand, move their lips for a while, perhaps spitting upon the page in an abortive attempt to master the unfamiliar, and then hurl the book from them.
My counter-argument here is that it's not the unpronounceability of pinyin that is the problem, but simply the unfamiliarity. The old Wade-Giles system, which had apostrophes in it for God's sake, is by contrast not only familiar but actually evocative, recalling Fu Manchu, the Tao Te Ching, Mao Tse-tung and chow mein (yes I know those aren't all proper Wade-Giles). The last time China and the West had any sustained period of cultural contact was say the 1880s to the 1940s, a time when Wade-Giles was ascendant (or else people made up any old shit), meaning that that style of romanization now conjures up a China that people felt they had a handle on: queues and rickshaws and junks and The Good Earth and Shanghai and Hong Kong and men in funny hats plowing behind oxen.
Pinyin, by contrast, conjures up nothing. There is no evocation, no association, no romance, no sense that one knows where one is. Pinyin isn't even associated with Communism, really, just with what came after, and what the hell did come after, now that you mention it? There are precious few stories or characters that come to mind when the reader happens across one of those little chemistry experiments gone wrong; they hold no magic or memory.
Give them a couple decades, and a few dozen good books, and they will.