Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Beijing of Possibilities - A review

I met Jonathan Tel back in Beijing around three years ago when he came to research his latest book. He contacted me as an expat to discuss some of my views on life in the city and we met for a meal in a Hunan restaurant on the North side of Haouhai lake.We spent a few enjoyable hours talking string theory, writing, travel and food (in a past incarnation Jonathan had been heading the way of the theoretical physicist).

Shortly after this I read Freud's Alphabet, Jonathan's second novel, which I now realise never received the full review it deserved. It's a dream-like look at the last days of Freud's life and the playful language alters as Freud's state becomes ever more influenced by the cocktail of cancer and morphine. The book, split into 26 alphabetically ordered vistas is well worth a read, both for the word play and for the slightly Joycian stream of unconsciousness which takes you through the book via a series of chaotic passages in one inevitable direction.

But that's not what this review is about. I was lucky enough to get a copy of The Beijing of Possibilities a few weeks ago and the fact that it has taken me such a long time to write this is a sorry reflection of life over the last few months.


Beijing is a land of unfinished stories. Every time you leave the flat you will see some loose thread of a scene which has a mystery behind it: the man wandering around in his pyjamas, the sullen girl at the bus-stop with empty eyes, the tattooed businessmen arguing at the table next to you, the Beijing goths in the I love kitty car. Everything has a back-story, but you are always left wandering.

When I met Jonathan back in Houhai he was researching the iceberg beneath the water that filled in the rest of these tales.The Beijing of possibilities is a book of short stories about the depth of Beijing life, mixed helplessly between ancient and modern, these are the windows into the split second pieces of action you see every day on the streets of any big city, but in Beijing more than any you know that the truth is much more interesting than what your imagination can muster.

The stories combine these events with ancient Chinese folktales to give a real sense of the Beijing which people who don't know the city well have real trouble understanding - the metropolis simply has too many layers of history, culture, pain and change to get a real idea of the diversity and complexity of life there, from the migrant workers to the modern couple living their dreams in a small Haidian apartment, from the factory worker to the opera librettist, Jonathan has captured the strange mix of brilliant colour with smudges of black and white without which it is impossible to think of Beijing.

In addition to the stories themselves, there is a more subtle play. Milan Kundera likes to put himself firmly in the middle of his stories, and sometimes you don't know on what level the narrator is with you as novel and commentary intertwine. Jonathan Tel pulls the opposite trick and sits in the shadows of his book making the pen seem to move without an author, and I have to say that I enjoyed this a lot. It influences the book only subtly but adds to it Jonathan's own style and character.

This book of short stories can be found at Amazon UK and Amazon US and I'd highly recommend it for anyone wants to see behind the door into the Beijing of possibilites.

See also the review at Timeout Beijing, where this was book of the month not long ago.

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