A story set in modern China wins the Royal Society of Literature VS Pritchett Memorial Prize 2015by Jonathan Tel / November 30, 2015 / Leave a comment
Jonathan Tel has won the £1,000 Royal Society of Literature VS Pritchett Prize for his short story “The Seduction of a Provincial Accountant.” Tel says that my “story was inspired by what is perhaps Chekhov’s most famous story, ‘The Lady with the Dog.’ Whereas he wrote about a romantic seduction in the Russia of his day, I am writing about a financial seduction in China nowadays.”
You could almost think you were in a foreign country. Once this was a treaty port, and there remain a number of European buildings, pretty and absurd. A pleasure steamer goes past, so close you feel you could reach out and touch it, with tourists raising phones to capture the beach. Farther out is a chemical transporter, bizarrely unshiplike in form, being composed of reservoirs and tentacle-like pipes; NO SMOKING is painted in characters larger than the name of the ship itself, and a lone seaman is on deck, leaning against a railing, smoking.
The man observing all this turns and climbs over the rocky foreshore, and encounters, coming the other way, a younger man wearing a T-shirt with English words on it. It seems one or the other will have to step aside, but actually neither does, for there is a vendor drawing their attention. He is cross-legged on a sheet of white vinyl; his DVD emits jaunty music while a paper cut-out of a cartoon dog, upright on the plastic, jigs in tempo. How does this work? What hidden mechanism makes it possible? “Buy one for your children! Five yuan each, three for ten yuan!” and, imploring the older man, “Buy one for your mistress!”
It is the younger man who crouches, and gets six, all different, the dog in addition to other creatures. “My girls will love this!” “Girls?” says the older man. “Twins. In August they’ll turn five.” “Ah, twin girls! How cute! Nature helps you evade the one-child policy.” He adds, “I have a daughter too, but she would not like this.” While the vendor is calling out to some other tourist, the older man explains, “It is a con. The animals won’t dance when you take them home.” “They won’t?” “Look carefully. There is a fishing line sewn through the cut-out on display. He jiggles it with his thumb. The dog doesn’t dance just because the music plays. How could it? Do you believe in magic?” The younger man takes off his glasses, and wipes them on his T-shirt. “Why didn’t you tell me before I bought them?” The older man smiles. He presents a business card; the address is a prestigious district of Beijing. The younger man is not carrying his cards; no matter. He is an accountant employed by a third-tier provincial city. They shake hands, each taking a formal pleasure in saying the other’s name. Qin writes Liu’s information into his smartphone. He has an intuition in these matters: as soon he spied the accountant he knew what kind of person he must be. “The weather is beautiful,” Qin says. “It is indeed beautiful.” “What’s the weather like, where you come from?” “The summer is hot. My twins love coming here. The Qingdao breeze is so refreshing.” The conversation is clichéd and stilted, as it should be. This is how one approaches a person like Liu. Qin has perhaps never before encountered such a perfect example of the type. “Your hotel is good?” Qin says. “And not too expensive?” “Ai, we’re paying the high-season price.” “I have many friends here. Next time I will negotiate you a discount. Where are your lovely twins?” “They’re in the hotel with my wife.” “My wife and daughter are asleep in the hotel. They prefer to get up late.” In fact his wife is home in Beijing, and his daughter … well he certainly hopes she’s in Beijing. Last month she took off without telling him with some school friends to Shanghai—all paid for on his credit card. He’s on his own in Qingdao, here to meet up with clients, and, as always, on the lookout. “My wife chose the hotel. She found it on the internet,” Liu says. “Her cousin lives in Beijing; perhaps you know him? Their family name is Kong, the same as Confucius.” Qin quotes the opening of the Analects: “How delightful to meet friends from afar.”
They walk along a concrete path. They have a view of the skyscrapers in the business district across the bay. A sweating fellow is grilling a rack of cuttlefish. Qin offers to buy one for Liu. The cuttlefish are tricky to handle, since they are big and chewy and coated with sweet brown sauce. The men each hold up a skewered cuttlefish, as if gesturing with hand-puppets.
How pleasant to grumble about one’s job, while on vacation! Liu chatters away, and Qin grunts sympathetically. They lean forward so as to bite into their cuttlefish without dripping sauce on their shirts. “Delicious,” Qin says. “Yes, delicious.” And now Qin makes his move. As he speaks, he gestures with his food, and one might imagine his half-eaten cuttlefish is doing the talking. It is a practiced speech yet subtly modified, with many commendations of the accountant’s desire to provide for his family. What Qin has in mind is a simple business proposition, with no risk to either party, a win-win situation. It might seem unusual to somebody from a provincial city, but he can confidently assert that by Beijing standards it is considered acceptable. He raises his cuttlefish. “May we have a fruitful cooperation!” But Liu presents his own skewered cuttlefish as if to parry a thrust. “According to the reg-g-g-ulations …” He stammers, like the legendary courtier who disagreed with the emperor, and his regional accent becomes stronger. “Thank you, Mr Qin, goodbye.” The young man turns and scurries inland, leaving a trail of sauce behind him. Qin calls after him, “It was a pleasure, Accountant Liu.” A street cleaner stares at the two tourists; she goes on sweeping the ground with her plastic broom. Qin sighs. Where did he go wrong? What else could he have done? Now if he’d had longer with Liu, taken him out for a drink, told him stories of other middle-ranking officials whom he’d helped with their financial worries …
He checks his phone. Messages from his secretary and his lawyer and business contacts. He dispatches a dozen carefully worded replies. He was a child during the Cultural Revolution; he remembers a soundtrack of orations and anthems and chants, extravagant praise swerving into fiery denunciation; stability is not the natural state of things, he has learned, we strive to maintain it. Also a voicemail from his wife; nothing from his daughter. He calls his daughter, and gets only the standard answering beep. “Xiaxia, this is Daddy. I’m at the airport, about to fly home. Where are you? I love you.”
Remember me? No, that won’t do. Or: I came all this way to see you. Definitely not. Qin puzzles how best to phrase it. It’s not quite the case that he came just for this—he arranged to do business in the provincial capital the previous day—but he’s here on the hunt. In honour of the mid-autumn festival, a celebration is taking place in the main square in Liu’s city. A troupe of middle-aged women in orange uniform are banging cymbals and marching in a circle. A carrion crow on a lamppost rocks to the beat. The master of ceremonies barks into his microphone. On the stage four sturdy girls stand in a row. Three smaller girls climb on top, balancing on the shoulders of those beneath. Now a pair of petite girls in tutus, identical twins, ascends to the very apex. The twins hoist a national flag between them. Their grin stands for determination overcoming fear. The crow flaps to a gingko tree, which sheds yellow leaves. The human pyramid presents itself as a perspective drawing: the twins might be full-size women, high up and far away. While the crowd is applauding Qin throws his cigarette on the ground. He glances from side to side. Their father must be here. On Liu’s homepage he was boasting about this performance for weeks. You look familiar. Haven’t I seen you before? No, that won’t do either.
But in the end it is Liu who notices him first. “Ah, what a pleasure!” He turns to the woman next to him, the perky big-eyed type, “Mr. Qin is a businessman from Beijing. We met in Qingdao. Didn’t I tell you about him?”
Qin shakes hands with Liu and with his wife. On his home turf Liu is more confident. He seems to have forgotten the disagreeable element of their last meeting; he has a selective memory, as we all do. He is proud to show off his connection with an important person from the capital. And he doesn’t seem surprised at Qin’s presence here either, as if taking it for granted that the whole world passes through this city, sooner or later.
Qin sticks fairly close to the truth. “I was in the vicinity, and I noticed on the civic website that your lovely girls would be performing. How could I fail to view them?” He leans close to the wife and murmurs, ‘I understand you’re a direct descendant of Confucius.”
She gazes past the visitor’s shoulder. “Our city is famous for its moon cakes.” She goes to make sure her daughters put on their coats.
The sun peeks through the clouds, along with a touch of rain. Qin says, “Would you like a Zhongnanhai? They have such a rich aroma.” The men retreat under an awning to smoke. All around them, citizens are meeting up and gossiping in hearty voices. The microphone blurts intermittently. On the stage, men and women in quaint costumes are taking part in a traditional dance associated with the region, and musicians play, and here and there in the square young couples dance in their own various manners. The men face each other. “What an excellent performance! Your twins reached the sky!” “Indeed they reached the sky. Does your daughter perform gymnastics too?” “My daughter has many talents.” Their smoke gathers between them. Liu takes off his glasses in order to rub his eyes. “Are your eyes sore?” Qin says. “My eyes are a little sore.” “Sometimes I suffer from allergies myself.” “I’m thinking of having the operation, where they cut your eyes with a laser, but a friend of mine had it done, and his eyesight actually got worse.” “I also am considering the operation.” A white lie—for the operation helps only with myopia. Qin is astigmatic in his right eye and slightly presbyopic in his left; without glasses, winking, he can see what’s going on in the distance. He rubs his better eye, to keep Liu company.
The scene shimmers and distorts. Qin can see only Liu, Liu only Qin; there is nothing but the two of them, surrounded by chaos. The band plays on, and feet beat on the resonant earth, and there are stray words from many conversations and a muted roar that might be an airplane passing over. Liu puts his glasses on, and his complicated world snaps back. His wife is returning with the excited twins. Qin makes an effort to focus. He holds himself with care, like an alcoholic taking pains to pass for sober. “I’m staying at the White Swan Hotel, Accountant Liu. Perhaps you could come round for a drink later? Waah you’re so pretty! And you too! You’re hard-working and talented! How you honour your parents!”
The twins hug their mother’s hips; she pats their heads, and their father too crouches to congratulate them; the family is a calisthenic display in its own right. The outsider is like that giant whose legs were taken to be tree trunks, too massive to be visible.
There is a long wait for the toilets. Qin flashes a document with impressive-looking stamps, and jumps to the front of the line. The air freshener implies a mountain forest, and Tchaikovsky is piped in. Afterward he admires himself in the mirror. He is not physically vain. He knows his face is sucked-in and not quite symmetrical, as if a drawstring has been tugged too hard. He can use his appearance to serve his interests: to cow an opponent, and to charm; a touch of hideousness adds piquancy, like vinegar in the soup.
That evening, in the hotel bar, the men drink scotch. He assures Liu: he’s done similar deals before, with many clients in many provinces, and everything has always gone smoothly. (Not quite true. One of his clients was fired. Another was very nearly arrested, and Qin had to pay to hush it up. A third is in jail, but that was on account of a separate embezzlement, unrelated to Qin’s activities.) And consider the twins’ future! Liu owes it to them to broaden his horizons! The fundamental idea is straightforward. In any organisation there is always cash that needs to be invested on a short-term basis. Naturally the interest paid would be low, let’s say two per cent. And it’s often necessary to borrow money on a short-term basis too, at quite a high rate, let’s say 12 per cent. Now, if Liu were to arrange for the municipal authorities to borrow a million yuan from an investment company controlled by Qin, and to deposit a million yuan into another investment company controlled by Qin, why that’s a profit of 100,000 yuan right there, to be split between them 70-30! Of course that’s only illustrative: the actual deal would be much more complex, hard to audit; irregular amounts would be borrowed and lent at various rates for various periods. As Mao said—or was it Confucius?—We think too small, like the frog at the bottom of the well. He thinks the sky is only as big as the top of the well.
Liu sips. “You make it sound so easy!” “It is easy.” “Why doesn’t everybody do it?” “Oh but everybody does it, all the successful people, I mean. Not exactly this method, but something like this. Tell me about your boss. How does he afford his limousine? Who pays for his beach vacation in Hainan, his gambling trip to Macau, his wife’s jewellerey? How come he has such a luscious young mistress?” “I really don’t think—“ “Ah, maybe your boss is an exception. I wasn’t speaking personally. But look around you. The people who enjoy a good life, they didn’t get where they were by sitting on their ass and obeying every petty regulation!”
As Qin inveighs, he considers that he sounds like his own daughter. She’s a great believer in breaking rules. Ever since she was 15 she’s been going to night clubs using a fake ID. Her school report is awful. If she were in a Chinese school, she’d be in serious trouble. But they live in a gated community in the north of Beijing, near the airport, and she attends an international school. Provided the father pays the fees, the school puts up with the student. His own teachers used to recite, “Study hard and improve daily” (he came from a modest background and struggled to get an education) but as far as she’s concerned school is an opportunity for fun and networking—a favourite English word of hers that seems Chinese in as much as it’s composed of two characters. She’s a junior in high school. She’s got it all figured out. She plans to go the University of Southern California, and become a movie producer. America’s got talent and China’s got money. She’s going to persuade Chinese billionaires to invest in Hollywood. She’ll take her cut.
The fact is, Qin has had several close shaves. He’s been investigated by the authorities, and so far he’s managed to wriggle out of it. He operates through offshore investment vehicles; he always denies personal responsibility but if necessary he agrees to pay compensation anyway. Some of his clients, though, they get greedy, they over-reach. Sooner or later, he fears, a scandal will break; maybe he’ll only be peripherally involved, but the authorities will be under pressure to lop a tall tree. But it seems to him that his corruption (if that is how it is to be defined) is outside himself—it existed thousands of years in the past, and will exist thousands of years in the future—he can take neither praise nor blame. He’s less concerned for himself than for his daughter. If he falls, then she won’t be able to study abroad, and her dreams will never come true. Let him just stay out of harm’s way for a few more years, he prays, another decade. By then her career will be established, and nobody in America will care if a producer’s father is locked up in a Chinese prison, in fact she might use it to advantage. She’ll hint that her father is a dissident, persecuted for his commitment to democratic values. Qin subscribes to the Wall Street Journal online, via a proxy server. Personally he’s happier in his own country—vacationing in New York or London or Tokyo only when his wife and daughter insist—but he knows how Chinese have to present themselves abroad. You work with what you’ve got. And in certain moods, he’s an optimist. There’s every chance, provided he plays his cards right, that he’ll rise to greater and greater heights; he’ll be too big to fail; investors will shower his daughter with money in order to get in with him. What he hopes for, above all, is that before he dies she has a child. He’s no stickler for tradition—Xiaxia can give him a grandson or a granddaughter; she can marry a big-nosed Westerner, for all he cares—but one way or another, he wants his lineage to continue. “Cheers!” Qin says in English, leaning forward with his whisky raised.
“I’ll phone you when I’m done,” Qin tells his chauffeur. Snow is shunted in heaps and the sky is heavy. The snuffling chauffeur closes his eyes with his mouth open, as if spelled into a deep sleep. The dashboard ornament is a plastic sunflower that raises and lowers its leaves perpetually. Qin advised Liu to admit nothing; there is no reason to panic. But the man has come all the way to Beijing, just in order to meet with him. He can’t refuse. Right now he needs a drink.
He’s in a foreign language bookstore. It’s not just the words that are foreign, the very shapes of the books and magazines, the designs of the covers, come from far away. He goes to the bar, where a red-haired bartender greets him in Mandarin, and he orders a double Glenfiddich. He feels safer here, half in China and half abroad. Sometimes an outsider can understand us in a way we do not understand ourselves. His wife sees a psychoanalyst, who sits in silence while she talks.
Liu comes in, and Qin realises he’s picked the wrong location. The idea was to bring Liu somewhere he’d be uncomfortable, to give Qin an advantage. But Liu is more than uncomfortable enough already. His face is haggard and his trouser cuffs are soaked. He’s unused to this climate; probably he walked from the subway. What if the accountant were to rant, to assign blame, to confess in public? Many here would not get it, guessing this to be a quarrel between boss and employee, or between father and son, or between lovers; others would relish every word.
Qin springs up and seizes Liu by the elbow. “I’m taking you somewhere more private.” As they leave, a couple are murmuring, “Je t’aime.” His daughter taught him the expression on the Air France flight. Throughout their stay at the hotel on the Champs Elysées, and at the Louvre, and in various department stores, he never had occasion to use that phrase, or indeed any of his minimal French, though quite possibly Xiaxia, strolling by moonlight along the banks of the Seine, spoke it and had it spoken to her. As pretty as his daughter is now, so was his wife in her youth. What did she see in him: did she perceive, beneath the surface, some kind of beauty? On their wedding night, she conceived. The timing was wrong; he had a career to pursue. Four years later, Xiaxia was born. He has always given his wife everything she’s entitled to. He is faithful—not that sex was ever the centre of their marriage; the world holds other desires, far more potent.
The chauffeur steers toward the curb, and, yawning, double-parks. The Audi has an adaptive suspension system; when Qin is at the back, his ride is smooth. But he believes that as soon as he gets out the chauffeur switches the suspension to sporty mode, and as if it were his own takes the vehicle for a spin, feeling every pothole and bump and irregularity of Beijing.
The passengers tramp around a snow drift, their track already flattened and darkened by generations of pedestrians. They enter the wholesale market—multiple levels of consumer goods. They take a series of escalators to the food court on the top floor. Here, at least, it’s most unlikely Qin would encounter anybody he knows. Neither is hungry.
They sit on plastic chairs. A not very clean table is between them. Two cups of water, left behind by previous diners, stake out the surface. There’s a No Smoking sign, and indeed nobody is smoking. “Help me,” Liu says. Qin tips his head back and sucks through his teeth. He feels an urge to charge forward, head-butting the accountant till their glasses collide and smash. How ugly Liu is, with his squinty little face and his fading hair! How ugly Liu’s wife too! How ugly the twins: he’s never seen such ugly girls in his life! What a perfectly ugly family! How he hopes Liu does not go through with the operation: it would be horrible to confront his naked eyes.
Meanwhile Liu is rambling on, stammering and repeating himself, descanting on the suspicions of his boss, his fear the municipality might appoint an outside auditor … In reaction to this frantic talk, Qin grows in power. He’s never been so sure of himself in his life. He raises an arm as if saluting from a podium, and it is his turn to speak. He explains this is a problem that will pass. It is not important in the grand scheme of things. The paper trail can be obscured by a further series of transactions, more debits, more credits, more borrowings, more loans … We are facing danger, yes, there will be further dangers, in the months and years to come, but so long as we stand together, united in the face of adversity, a glorious future lies ahead!