LI ER (1966— )
LI ER (1966— ). Fiction writer. Known primarily for his novels Huaqiang (Trickery) and Shiliushu shang jie yingtao (Cherries Grown on a Pomegranate Tree), Li Er worked for several years in the academic field upon graduation from the Chinese Department of East China Normal University in 1987. He is currently an editor at the literary journal Mangyuan (Wilderness). While in college, he was exposed to a wide variety of works by foreign writers, including Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Saul Bellow, and Václav Havel. He was also influenced by his friend and mentor Ge Fei, then a young lecturer at East China Normal University.
The main character (in absentia) of Huaqiang, published in 2001, is a man named Ge Ren, a translator, linguist, poet, and Communist revolutionary who died in the mid-1940s. In the vein of a detective novel, the work revolves around the mystery of Ge Ren’s death through the accounts of three narrators whose own lives intertwined at some point with the protagonist’s. The three versions of Ge Ren’s story are collected and compiled by another narrator, the only descendant of the protagonist. The first narrator, a doctor who once serviced the Communist troops in northern Shaanxi, tells his part of the story in the 1940s as he escapes to Hong Kong as a result of a brutal internal purge within the Communist Party. The second narrator, a former underground Communist Party member being interrogated in a labor camp in 1970, recalls Ge Ren’s family history and his early life as a romantic youth and progressive intellectual. The third narrator, a Communist army general turned Nationalist, delivers his version upon his triumphant return to China in 2000 as an honored guest of the party he once betrayed. The twists and turns of events in the lives of the narrators make mockery of the rivalries and wars between parties and countries. The novel suggests that if yesterday’s enemy is today’s friend, history has simply played a cruel joke (shua huaqiang) on all those involved in the zealous struggles in the past. It is no coincidence that the name Ge Ren sounds exactly like geren (individual) in the Henan dialect, which is the author’s native tongue, invoking the allusion that the story of Ge Ren is the story of every individual who has gone through the social and political upheavals of modern China. The novel goes on to indicate that the notion of an individual in control of his or her own destiny is simply an illusion and coincidences and accidental choices leading to dramatically different consequences are the ultimate determinants of a person’s life. History, as the title of the last chapter points out, is “written by the victor.” Huaqiang is thus a metaphor for the follies of politics, the fortuity of life, and the unreliability of memory, history, and reality.
While Huaqiang deals primarily with the irony of history, Shiliushu shang jie yingtao (Cherries Grown on a Pomegranate Tree) addresses how traditional culture intersects with modern values in the present. The novel centers on the manipulation of influence in a village election in northern China. Everyone, from the current village head to the former village head, from the director of security to the accountant, from the village doctor to the school principal, from the Communist Youth League secretary to the average villager, has a stake in the game and tries to steer the outcome in his or her favor. The campaign shows that rural politics is every bit as complicated as any presidential election and a peasant is as sophisticated as any big-game politician. What the novel focuses on, however, is not the political implications of a village election, which as a new phenomenon in China is interesting in itself, but on how traditional values, which have sustained rural communities, are at odds with modern concepts of fairness and ethics. The unexpected election result reveals some hidden forces at work that bring to naught the individual’s painstaking efforts to control the flow of events.
Li Er uses satire, irony, dark humor, and paradox to highlight the follies of human behavior. In many ways he is a philosopher of life who sees incongruity between intention and outcome, between words and action; his work questions the criteria for distinguishing right from wrong, truth from lie, and reality from fiction. Cherries grow on a pomegranate tree or a man bites a dog—ludicrous? Maybe or maybe not. In addition to his novels, Li Er has published many short stories and novellas collected under such titles as Raoshe de yaba (A Talkative Mute) and Yiwang (Oblivion) as well as prose work. Some of Li Er’s works have been translated into German.