- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

THE BANQUET BUG: A NOVEL

By Geling Yan

Hyperion East, $24.95, 288 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

The eponymous banquet bug of Geling Yan’s novel is Dan Dong, a laid-off factory worker who gets ushered into a press banquet while job-hunting at a fancy Beijing hotel. Dan and his wife Little Plum live on noodles and out-of-date canned food — not great, but better than the tree bark and sorghum gruel with roasted grasshoppers that they lived on in their native villages. Naturally, then, Dan tucks into the banquet, thanking his lucky stars for a free meal.

One free meal leads to many more as Dan learns that press banquets are daily events in Beijing. By masquerading as a reporter, he can eat lavishly and also receive envelopes of “money for your trouble”: In other words, bribes to induce reporters to hype whatever product or policy the banquet is promoting.

Thus he becomes a banquet bug: a fake reporter who gets paid for eating such extraordinary dishes as Land Within Sea. This is sea snails stuffed with a mixture of snail, veal and wild mushrooms, then cooked in the shell so that it emerges in a perfect spiral.

Then there’s a dish composed of a thousand crab claws: “Imagine all the meat that was once the tiny fingertips of those poor little monsters!” Dan exclaims to Little Plum.

She is too well-grounded to be envious of him, but Dan longs for her to enjoy some of the delicacies he now eats: the shark’s fin soup, the sea cucumbers, “the flowerbed of various mushrooms in a spectrum of creamy white, powder yellow, subtle orange, light and dark browns all the way to velvety black.”

Spiriting Little Plum into one of the banquets is the beginning of the end of Dan’s career as a banquet bug. But before it comes to a dramatic close, his knowledge of China expands at least as much as his knowledge of its culinary marvels. After beginning to write articles because he spots that most reporters tell much less than the full story in their papers, he meets Happy Gao, a savvy freelancer, who helps him get his stories of persecuted farmers published.

In return, she demands that they work together on profile of Ocean Chen, a famous painter who Dan met at a banquet of eight dishes made from the creatures of China’s remotest forests. The piece de resistance was a gorgeously presented roast peacock that so outraged Chen by its perversity that he upended the table, and left the room with Dan in tow.

A skilled professional, Happy pursues any means to get a story. She is not above getting Dan free services in a “massage” parlor, and her urging gets him further into the world of wealthy businessmen and the rich twenty-somethings whose parents are Party operatives. Pretty soon he knows the chicaneries and scandals and scams fostered by China’s current economic boom.

Meanwhile, Little Plum contentedly makes a little money where she can. She trims rubber shoe soles for five cents a pair or crochets wigs or simply sells bottled water to motorists stalled in traffic.

She loves “Sightseeing in vast car lots packed with rows and rows of new or used cars; in supermarkets with aisles and aisles of goods; and in multilevel complex intersections of city streets. She likes the sight of bulldozers lined up, mowing down heaps and piles of garbage … The scenes she fancies are expansive, modern, industrially organized, and inhuman.”

Happy Gao knows that this dreary description typifies the new China, but like many of the younger generation she can live with it, even though her articles expose its excesses. Ocean Chen knows it too. He also knows that he is prostituting his art. He disgusts himself. Dan is one of the few people to realize that his prestigious but mystifying paintings actually convey hatred for what China has become and for his own role in it.

Ocean Chen as a raissoneur: clearly seeing and expressing what is wrong with the new China. Like Dan, he grew up in a poor distant province, but his talent has allowed him to live among China’s glitterati. He understands the immense disparity between rich and poor. Despite the touted policies promoting education for poor children or a reduction in farmers’ taxes, there is no serious hope that life for the millions of peasants will get better any time soon because no serious effort is made to tackle their problems.

Geling Yan’s portrayal of Chen is incisive in its presentation of the deep corruption of artists who betray their own vision, and of politicians and Party operatives who line their pockets and buy fancy homes with funds earmarked for the poor.

Similarly, her use of the banquet as a symbol for China’s ills is astute. Ample, hospitable and luxurious, these masterpieces of culinary art are also wasteful, foolish, mendacious and evil in their perversion of resources and people. The most elaborate of them is a banquet of unusual and extravagant seafoods served on the bodies of young girls.

Dan watches dismayed as “The naked maidens are buried under abalones, scallops, prawns … Hiding behind jokes and playfulness, the guests’ chopsticks reach out for the biggest abalones and lobster meat to uncover the maidens’ essential secrets.”

As one group of people literally feed off another, this pornographic meal suggests both the greed of the rich and the plight of young women lured from all over China by flashy cities, where many find that the only work is in the sex industry.

In contrast, both Little Plum, who combines contentedness with hard work and skill at fighting her corner, and Happy Gao, who is talented, clever, determined and, above all, skeptical, suggest real energy and a serious rootedness in their own values that indicates that the China that has endured so long will come through the trial of its great economic miracle as it has come through so many other trials.Unfortunately, at the moment, Chinese society is not a banquet of life where all may come to the table.

Clearly, this book is based on Geling Yan’s experience as a journalist. She left China after the Tiananmen Square disaster, and since then she has written both scripts and novels, including the widely praised “The Last Daughter of Happiness.”

“The Banquet Bug” is her first novel written in English rather than translated from Chinese, and it shows a punchy mastery of the language, an eye for the harsh detail and down-to-earth language that drives a point home. It is a must-read novel for anyone curious about China today. It is also a considerable literary achievement with a personal vision of the world conveyed with eloquent detail.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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