No time to be funny

No time to be funny
Yan Lianke says he is the most boring and the least humorous Chinese writer. [Photo by Zhan Min/China Daily]

Chinese writer Yan Lianke is a humorous man. Like his novels, his conversation is often witty and is full of plans that sound absurd at first but are real and sad when you digest them.

For example, the 57-year-old says that when he read his first foreign novel, Gone With the Wind, he was 20 years old. Before that all he read was Chinese revolutionary literature, so he thought all literature in the world was red.

He was 20 in 1978 when China started reforming and opening up, recovering slowly from the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

But Yan insists that he is the least humorous writer in China.

"I never try to be humorous either in writing or in speaking. For me, everything is tragic, survival, lives or life. Especially in this land, there is far more tragedy than humor. But this is the cultural difference between East and the West," says Yan in a dialogue with French writer and journalist Renaud de Spens at Institut Francais de Chine in Beijing.

Yan has eight works published in French, including the latest, The Chronicles of Zhalie, in September.

Globally, Yan's fiction has been translated into more than 20 languages.

"We say that the reality we represent in our works is a great tragedy, but people in the West regard it as satire and humor. When I wrote Serve the People!: A Novel, my heart was full of sorrow. They all say that Yan Lianke is the most humorous Chinese writer, but I think I am the most boring and the least humorous," says Yan, the Franz Kafka Prize winner in 2014.

"Reading my novels is not a pleasant experience. I understand that readers may hate me after reading them, but they will remember me."

He says that writing is also torture for him. At home in Beijing, Yan sits down at a desk at half past 7 or 8 in the morning, and works for two hours to write about 2,000 characters.

"I know writers like Wang Anyi say that writing is a happy thing, but for me it's very painful. After writing 2,000 characters, I do not talk to anyone. The happiest thing for me is to go to my study and watch National Basketball Association games on TV," he says.

Born in a remote village in Henan province, Yan helped the family grow crops and herd cattle when he was young. He dropped out of high school.

Yan says that if he had not become a writer, he would have been a construction contractor because he had mastered the skills to build walls before joining the army at 20.

During the three-year famine from 1959 to 1961, many people starved to death in Henan province.

The memory of his early hard life gives Yan a lot of inspiration, urging him to think about the situation of his people in the process of social development, represent the reality in China, and describe how people live and suffer, and to reflect their restless souls.

Yan says he can never forget the three-year famine but he seldom found any important writer wasting ink about it. In 2001, Yan received anonymous mail about the "AIDS village" in Henan.

Yan says he then pretended to be the assistant of an anthropologist from Peking University and entered the village to tell people how to prevent and treat HIV and how to live once infected.

"I never wrote any diary, took any photo or interviewed people about the disease. I just went to villagers' homes, sat down and ate together with them. They would tell you everything," he says.

Based on this experience, Yan wrote the novel Dream of Ding Village.

Yan emphasizes that he did not go there to record anything like a journalist, or to gain experience for his writing.

"I think writers should not work like journalists or deliberately go to experience a hard life to write. Writers should use their imaginations to write what they feel. I don't write for anyone. I write just for myself, my heart," he says.

These days Yan is reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's fiction, which fascinates him.

"The greatest thing about his fiction is that he accurately describes the confusion and restlessness people face in life," he says.

"It seems that Chinese people are happy. Reading An Isolated Village, you will find it's full of absurd jokes. We seem to get used to these things. These days, when the smog is thick, it's like we have nothing to talk about but the smog. I know every person in Beijing is anxious but feels helpless-a feeling which you can find in Dostoevsky's fiction."

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