Jay Parker reviews Michael Berry’s translation of Han Song’s absurd, disturbing novel.

Han Song, Hospital, translated by Michael Berry (Amazon Crossing, 1 Mar 2023), 407pp.

There is a long section of Hospital where the protagonist, Yang Wei, discourses with his fungal infection on the nature of the universe. Pain is at the core of this exploration, because the universe is in pain and because Yang’s infection, located in his bowels, causes him agony throughout Han Song’s satirical, allegorical novel, which drags its protagonist through corridors literally swimming in piss, shit, and blood. One’s patience for black, often foetid, absurdity is a good barometer for one’s sticking power with this work, which is variously distressing, laugh-out-loud funny, puerile, captivating, and repetitive.

Repetition is perhaps unavoidable in a novel which takes Buddhist spirituality as one of its (many) allusive frames. The novel’s preface introduces a mission to Mars to find the Buddha that unearths a mysterious hospital before the mission is destroyed. It then segues into Yang’s hospitalisation for a mysterious abdominal pain, and takes us into a surreal, horrifyingly strange but familiar world of treatments and therapies without a clear purpose beyond the perpetuation of the hospital system itself.

Han Song, with Liu Xin and Wang Jinkang, is one of China’s so-called three generals of science fiction. This translation by Michael Berry of Song’s novel is based on an amazing mixture of serendipity and opportunism. This isn’t just a translation. It’s a new text, which according to the translator’s note was reconstructed from an early draft of the Chinese manuscript. Han mistakenly sent an old version he thought he had deleted from his computer to Berry, who after working on it for some time, discovered serious discrepancies between the version he was translating and the published Chinese novel. Berry was horrified, but Han told him the published version was full of editorial interventions, and urged him to press on with the existing translation. They then used this as the basis for a new text, co-created in dialogue between translator and author, blending various manuscripts with new material written by Han specifically for this translation. As Berry’s note tells us, this is now Han’s preferred version: “over all others … the result of an experiment in textual engineering in translation, a literary variant, like Frankenstein’s monster”.

Science fiction is a genre which has had mixed fortunes in China. Lu Xun, the master of Chinese Modernism, translated Jules Verne into Chinese, yet Han himself said, in 2013: “most Chinese people have no idea about science fiction at the present time. Readers in China are more interested in things that have a direct influence on their daily lives”. The genre fell foul of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign in the 1980s, and whilst, contra-Han, it is amongst the most popular genres in China today (China Daily reports the sci-fi industry was worth just under 83 billion yuan, or 12 billion USD in 2021), many of Han Song’s own novels are banned.

There is something disingenuous in Han’s view that science fiction is disconnected from daily life, however. Whilst science fiction conjures, creating worlds that extend the limits of our imagination, it depends, above all, on our recognition of the present in those worlds. Sometimes this recognition dawns slowly, sometimes as a shock, a sudden revelation. 

But whether it rises or erupts, it enables a diagnosis of contemporary ills. Hospital takes diagnosis to its absurd limits, engaging in critique that satirises state, bureaucracy, and biopower, but blends this with Buddhist reflection on suffering and the unreliability of human experience. It is dizzying in a scope and ambition that render repetition, contradiction, and incoherence as stylistic devices. Protagonist Yang experiences cycles of being, rapid reversals, and tumultuous changes of heart.

Those familiar with China, its political rhetoric and institutions, will see immediately the novel’s biting satire. The allegory is at once transparent and uncanny, the medicalisation of politics taking biopower to absurd extremes. It can be intellectually at once vertiginous and exhausting, a torrent of allusions and familiar phrases.

The novel’s translator, Michael Berry, likes to think of Hospital as “a Terry Gilliam adaptation of a Franz Kafka story set amidst a crazed Chinese Communist Party politburo”. I’d swap Gilliam for David Cronenberg via William Burroughs. As Berry observes in his translator’s note, numerous character names are homophones in Chinese for bodily fluids, whilst the protagonist’s name, Yang Wei, echoes the Chinese for impotence. This preoccupation with discharge, as well as various hallucinatory sexual encounters is at least as much Naked Lunch as Brazil

Yet a disturbing feature of Hospital’s style is the way it desensitises. Protagonist Yang Wei’s blindness, and his own dubious morality – captured in his non-descript, dare I say clinical, depictions of death, mutilation, corridors of excrement and viscera – is infectious. Bodies become meat casually abandoned on floors, gurneys, and dissecting tables. At one point Yang describes 3D printed organs in a production facility in the hospital as like delicious dim sum. 

But there was a point where I had to pause, and it seemed no coincidence that it was just as Bai Dai, the novel’s most important female character, and Yang himself break down in exhaustion and pass out. Struggling to find the hospital morgue, they collapse in a room full of garbage. The stare at the diagrams of human organs that decorate the walls, barely registering the dismembered corpse of an orangutan lying beside them amongst the other refuse, before waking and having sex. Yang can’t achieve arousal without fantasising about rape, but soon finds he and Bai Dai have discovered in their mutual co-exploitation, a new and transformative form of therapy, but one in which they cannot achieve climax. 

Han’s novel displays a misogyny and degree of sexual exploitation that cannot be overlooked. For Yang, women (including his own daughter) alternate between being sexual objects and the means to reflect his own inner journey. By the end of the novel, they are both at the same time. There is no question that Yang, who tells his own story, is unquestionably an unsympathetic narrator, and his moral failings and almost unyielding lack of insight, reflect the distortions of the totalitarian medical regime to which he is subjected. 

There is a problem with this kind of narrator. Yang Wei is a distancing strategy. Himself subject to irony and critique, he creates a perspective of the world that we are revulsed by. Racist and sexist, he minimises the suffering around him, and dehumanises the patients who are suffering. He does this because he is part of a system that does this, and his warped subjectivity is a part of the novel’s point. 

Han’s hospital is a machine that consumes human life for power and profit. But in representing dehumanisation, Han himself dehumanises his characters. And by inviting us to see the world through Yang’s eyes, Han exploits our urge to empathise with protagonists and narrators, and makes us complicit in his narrator’s warped perspective. 

This complicity is uncomfortable, as it should be, and when we also identify with the victims of dehumanisation (and Yang reminds us we are all sick, that we are all slowly dying), the effect is challenging and unpredictable. One the one hand, it can provoke self-reflection, on the other anger that leads to disengagement or outright rejection. There were moments when I rolled my eyes reading Hospital, and times when I wondered if its anti-American passages constituted racism in Han as well as Yang. Most of all, I wondered whether Yang’s misogynistic persona was necessary.

Berry, in his note, suggests it has a distinctive purpose: that the novel is “a critical allegory of how the hospital destroys every conceivable convention of society, of the family, and even of morality itself. It is through cycles of ethical subversion the dark side of Han Song’s literary project is revealed”. 

Literature isn’t meant to make us comfortable. The success of good or great writing can be gauged by the power it possesses to make us read through the difficulties it presents, whether they are emotional, intellectual or ethical. One of this novel’s achievements, and an achievement of this translation, is the way that it pushes us as readers to inhabit the hospital ourselves. If the world is framed the right way, we can lose our ability to register its horror. When Han’s novel gave me ethical pause, it was letting me off the hook, restoring my critical distance to a text its own style, simultaneously overwhelming and anaesthetising, had undermined. That violence often has to become sexual to give us pause points to one cultural ill, but Yang’s casual instrumentalisation of women undoubtedly points to another.

Jay Parker is Associate Professor in the Department of English at The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. He teaches and writes on the political novel, postcolonial ecocriticism, and law and literature.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s