“Strange Bedfellows” by Liu Zhenyun

Liu Zhenyun Liu Zhenyun

In the opening scene of Liu Zhenyun’s 2017 novel, recently translated into English as Strange Bedfellows by the widely acclaimed translators Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin (some critics have gone so far as to assert that Goldblatt’s translations of Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan are better than the originals), we witness the negotiation of a poor young woman from an unnamed province in southwestern China being sold into marriage. The woman handling the negotiation on the groom’s behalf is Niu Xiaoli, sister of the prospective groom and the focus of much of the narrative that follows. Song Caixia, the new bride, winds up running off five days into the marriage. Together with the matchmaker who introduced them, Niu Xiaoli embarks upon a road trip in an effort to track down her brother’s bride—and winds up losing herself in the process. 

In this delicately-paced, fast-moving satire that takes us across provincial China and a number of its second- and third-tier cities, no one turns out to be what they present themselves as—and are as often as not molded into people they never thought they would be. Chief among them, Niu Xiaoli, who, in the course of her journey, winds up taking Song Caixia’s name after she is persuaded to lift herself out of her financial debts by working as a prostitute. This fate brings her into intimate and consequential contact with a corrupt official who has been told by a Taoist priest that he must have sex with a virgin in order to get himself out of the trouble he has gotten himself into…

The characters inhabit a post-ideological world where the nihilism of self-interest and spiritual poverty are the sole beneficiaries.

Strange Bedfellows, Liu Zhenyun, Howard Goldblatt (trans), Sylvia Lin (trans) (Cambria Press, Seprember 2021)
Strange Bedfellows, Liu Zhenyun, Howard Goldblatt (trans), Sylvia Lin (trans) (Cambria Press, Seprember 2021)

Well, this is just an inkling of the myriad plot twists that comprise this blackly comedic journey through a New China that already appears a bit dated, but will be bleakly familiar to anyone who has spent much time in the country beyond the tourist trail over the past two decades. In the absence of anything remotely resembling justice in Liu’s New China, money is sought out to fill the void. “Any conflict that can be resolved using renminbi, the people’s money, is an internal conflict among the people,” his narrator states laconically early on in the narrative—though we also see that money never really solves anything, as today’s fortune gained is tomorrow’s lost.

The characters inhabit a post-ideological world where the nihilism of self-interest and spiritual poverty are the sole beneficiaries. Equal weight is given here to the official and unofficial worlds that comprise Chinese society in the early 21st century—the official world being that of corrupt petty bureaucrats who spend much of their time deceitfully jockeying for position, the unofficial world being that of the former peasants struggling to make gains in a world where they will never have the advantage. The message is clear: in such a world, everyone can only be a whore or a crook, or often some admixture of the two.

In its caustic bluntness, even crudeness, and the simplicity of its language, Strange Bedfellows can be thought of as a novel in the tradition of dirty realism, the genre pioneered by Charles Bukowski, but has more recently found favor in the work of outlier writers of Communist regimes, such as Cuba’s Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and China’s own Yu Hua or Murong Xuecun, whose novels Leave Me Alone and Dancing Through Red Dust similarly depict a corrupt world where sex, money, and the arbitrary whims of the law combine to destroy lives, leaving a moral vacuum and an endemic lack of trust in their wake.

 

The artistry that Liu adds to this genre is to be found in the formal structure of his narrative, which at first appears to be comprised of distinct novellas, until gradually the characters’ lives begin to intersect, and, by the end, a complete tapestry has been woven. While it may not be for everyone, Liu’s novel nonetheless serves as a layer of bitter truth that offers a level of depth to the artificial sweetness the ideologues of contemporary China would otherwise have us swallow.


Travis Jeppesen is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Cultural and Creative Industry at Shanghai Jiaotong University. His latest books are Bad Writing (Sternberg/MIT Press, 2019) and See You Again in Pyongyang (Hachette, 2018).