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Book review: The Matchmaker, the Apprentice and the Football Fan by Zhu Wen

By Prospect Team   January 2014

There are certain kinds of China stories one encounters every day in the news media: economic stories, reform stories, corruption stories, censorship stories. These rarely seem to contain recognisable human beings. Zhu Wen’s new short story collection trades in the comic and grotesque, but it will appeal to readers looking for a more vivid, more human picture of modern China. The stories are narrated by mediocre men, mostly second rate engineering graduates, who are pushed around by their bosses, colleagues or wives. A number of the protagonists were students during the protests of 1989, and they seem to have internalised their defeats and disappointments. Wry resignation is their default mode. “I’m too much of a mediocrity to make any mark on posterity,” says one. They are aware of their limitations even as storytellers. “I probably should have written a more careful, a more profound piece about my friend,” says the narrator of the offbeat opening story “Da Ma’s Way of Talking.”

Yet Zhu Wen’s fiction is funny and inventive, too. Musical notation punctuates the first story and Diego Maradona plays a key role in another. In “The Matchmaker,” an adulterous couple take to re-enacting Hamlet and Gone With the Wind. “She loved it when I called her Vivien Leigh,” says the narrator, before adding a typically deflationary note: “I must confess I wasn’t very excited about the whole Clark Gable thing, but I was happy to give it a try—it distracted me temporarily from my cigarettes.”

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