The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung
In an interview with The New York Times, Chan Koonchung stated that “my ambition was to write an antiromantic novel about Tibet.” In The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver he gives us the decidedly anti-heroic Champa, whose strange quest from Lhasa to Beijing highlights the tensions facing modern Tibet. Champa isn’t, as Koonchung described in that same interview, “deep. He’s deeply flawed.” Much the same could be said of the novel, which is at times deeply entertaining, but simultaneously lacking in depth or nuance.
Champa is a young Tibetan man who likes to drink, sleep with women, including his art-dealing Chinese boss, Plum, and—especially—he loves driving. When he got his license his “dad said: ‘Now you can drive your mum and dad to Beijing.” Something that never actually happened, but to his family, beginning with his grandfather, Beijing occupies a special place. Champa too gets the Beijing bug: “My mates at school called me ‘Beijing-fixated’. I strolled along Beijing Road, watched the Beijing Olympics on TV and ate Peking Duck.”
When Plum finally takes her “Champie” to the Chinese capital, he can hardly contain his excitement: “I would get to go to Beijing at last! I was thrilled... I’d imagined that, after so long, she’d come to meet me inside the terminal, and we’d throw our arms around each other. Like in the movies.” Champa’s expectations are too big not to fail.
Kept sequestered in a five-star hotel and shuttled from one tourist attraction to another, Plum seems to be embarrassed to be “keeping” a Tibetan, which is not the case back in Lhasa. His outing to the mythic center of China turns out to be a disappointment. To make matters worse, on the road back to Lhasa, across the Qinghai-Tibet highway, in the brand new white Range Rover Plum has given him, Champa realizes he’s no longer attracted to her.
This is manifested, quite literally, in Champa’s inability to get it up for Plum, except by means of imagining someone else. In a strange turn, his entire libido is caught up in a Tara statue that Plum claims looks like her, but actually resembles her daughter, Shell: “I thought of the Tara, then of Shell. Shell, Tara, Tara, Shell. The Tara merged into Shell and I wasn’t thinking of the Tara any more, only of Shell.”
Caught in his own mind, worrying that Plum will notice his enervated vigor, the sexually frustrated Champa fears hurting Plum’s feelings, if not her safety, as one of two unsettling scenes that borders on rape displays. He has also grown attached to the material possessions and status his association with Plum provides. What’s a “a tough guy, a Tibetan mastiff, a heart throb” to do?
Champa decides to drive back across the Qinghai-Tibet highway to present Shell the Tara statue and be embraced by “China’s mega-megalopolis”. His drive east is a bit of a mini-Odyssey with strange omens and a sage hitchhiker named Nyima who has “started to do nothing” since 2008, a reference to the demonstrations in the Tibetan Autonomous Region in March of that year. Nyima keeps Champa occupied with discussions of Freud’s theories of the death wish and sex-urge, Nirvana, the history of Tibet, and old Italian cinema. If there is a character in the novel that could use a dose of Freud, it is Champa.
Predictably, upon arrival in Beijing, things are much different than the movies or propaganda make it seem. Beijingers live in cramped apartments, suggest Champa work at a Tibetan restaurant, and much to his chagrin, use public transportation.
This mundane Beijing is introduced in one of the better passages of the novel, composed of nothing but text messages and tweets by animal rights activists trying to stop a truck full of stolen dogs from being taken to Jilin and used as meat. There is humor in the scene and shows off Chan’s strength in utilizing the language of the digital. But there is also something revealing about how prone digital democracy can be to digression.
Shell proves to be no stabilizing force for the wayward Champa. She is literally a mess: “she couldn’t even keep her things under control. Stuff was strewn around as if she was a street vendor.” Champa is frustrated also by Shell’s sexual confusion and ends up forcing himself on her at one point, just as he did with her mom. Although, this is meant as a metaphor for the complex relationship between China and Tibet, it reads more like an unconscious revenge fantasy and leaves one feeling quite disturbed.
This extremity draws attention to Chan’s insistence that the characters be little more than ciphers. As literary inventions their motivations remain inchoate and unnuanced in the service of unmistakably delineating the novel as an allegory of Sino-Tibetan relationships. This is despite the fact that Chan didn’t want to write an overly political novel of Tibet.
However, Champa is caught between Lhasa and Beijing, between modernity and history. His journey embodies the push and pull world through which Tibet wades even though Champa himself has few political leanings of his own. At most, what he finds troubling is that he and his fellow Tibetans are so restricted geographically. He sees freedom as conferred through the awarding of passports, identification cards, bribes, and the ability to drive unhindered through the cavernous expanses of China.
William Gibson once said “science fiction’s best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going.” Chan’s first novel, The Fat Years, which was banned in China, was science fiction, but with The Unbearable Dreamworld he has relocated to this new tradition, underscoring the strangeness of the present rather than searching for any clues to the future. Chan’s vision in combining the language of rapidly changing consumer technologies, imported red wines and luxury cars with the vast emptiness of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway remains the strongest feature of the novel. But perhaps the knowledge that such a controversial topic would never be published in China gave Chan the license to stray occasionally into the obvious.