Before the release of his novel, Li Haipeng was already loved by many readers for the classical, musical beauty of his words. His articles combine a wealth of information with a sharp logic, and his essays mix humour with depth of reflexion, so much so that people were wondering how he would manage in the world of the novel.
“Late silence” starts from the the point of view of young Xia Chong, and describes his depressed, cynical and distant collision with the world. The style of the novel retains a classical beauty and a slow pace. The plot is flat, but the portrait of the protagonist is enough to make you see the changes in the fate of different Chinese people over these 30 years of change.
This is all immensely ambitious, but otherwise, as Li Haipeng says, there’s no point in writing novels. “Late Silence”, this first attempt, full of spirit, makes people discover a new possibility for Li Haipeng. He still continues his exploration, and climbs up his own mountain.
Questions: Tan Xufeng
Answers: Li Haipeng
Q: I remember long ago you said that, because you read so many classics, you found yourself unable to write. How did you later solve this problem?
A: I think many people have the same problem, don’t you find? The younger they are, the less experience they have and the less they read, the more easily they will write a novel. For them, the novel is a story. From very early on, I have found that making a story was a particularly easy thing, because designing a conflict has just one fondamental rule: if you want conflict, the conflict will come naturally 一共那些种类. So the story in itself is actually of no value whatsoever, it’s just about seducing people so they will be compelled to read on, this is not really worth doing, and since this is not really worth doing, if you leave that aside, what’s left? That still doesn’t make seduction easy. What we’re saying is – it goes beyond that – if you only want to seduce readers, if your goal is only to become famous or make money, there are many ways to reach it, and there is no need to write a novel. And therefore the elevation of classics is very hard to achieve.
Q: What are the criteria? If the story is not the most valuable element, what are the other important elements?
A：You can basically say the following: being a completely compelling read is not the feature of a serious novel, but you can’t say that all serious novels are not a compelling read. Though it must be the case for 99% of them. For instance, to talk about the main points, the main protagonists are more important than the plot, and the book builds a complete world, rather than just recounting an event. For instance, in “Outlaws of the marsh”, all the characters are comparatively well profiled, and though we can’t really say that the plot is well constructed, it is undeniably exciting, and works like a chain, each link leading onto the next. But if you’re asking what kind of world does it build? It doesn’t, but “Golden Lotus” does, and that is the difference between two novels of diferent qualities. In the preface of “Late Night Silence”, I wrote that, through the story of one man, I want to let all the stories of past ages surface on the paper. I find this view rather convincing. But at a fundamental level, of course, it’s impossible, it is a journey, it’s a difference. And there’s another standard of high artistic pursuit, and it’s not just a saying, the most important thing for a writer is to have their own voice, and that their voice is different from that of others, that’s very important, and that includes your concerns, your tastes, and your style of conversation.
Q: People say that you took a long time to write this novel, and still did not manage to finish it. So for you, is it a summary of the past, is it an evaluation, or a kind of farewell?
A: I think there’s this aspect of what you said, but it’s not quite clear, so how should I say it, all the people who like writing know about this, that when we have composed a text, past times do not fade away in vain, I think this is one meaning of what you said. In fact, it’s what people call retaining time, because you write it down, and you try to write it well, then your life falls onto the paper, and produces something like meaning.
Q: I think that in “Late Silence”, there is this musical beauty you talk about, and this includes an extremely well paced text, but everything you describe so beautifully, whether it’s the emotions, the story or the characters, all of it has a sense of depression and solitude, so what do you have to say about this opposition, what’s you view about that?
A: In literature and art, no matter what you write about, whether it’s something beautiful or ugly, no matter what the topic is, you must give your reader a sense of beauty. For instance, many of Picasso’s paintings depict very cruel scenes, but his pursuit is artistic, and it’s not because we paint a cruel scene, or paint an ugly thing, that the painting itself should not have beauty. The roots of the desire to write lie in the desire to create a sense of beauty, but generally speaking, this sense of beauty has endless numbers of definitions. And in this novel, one of these is the most common, or the most mainstream form of beauty, that is the musicality of the text, the precise selection of words, etc etc.
In fact, there are many other types of beauty. For instance, very simple sentences can also bring up a sense of beauty, and I haven’t said I would never write a novel in this style. I’m just saying that the desire to write in a certain way does not necessarily have to be in conflict with something else, and has nothing to do with the contents. As opposed to, for instance, the case of the writer who wishes to write about boring things, and writes a boring text, or writes about dull things, and the text also becomes dull, or writes about ugly things, and the text also becomes ugly.
However, there is a difference here, and the difference is that between the hero and the author. What the hero experiences, and how the author sees this experience, are two different things. The hero may experience unpleasant things, or very ugly things, but you as author don’t necessary need to adopt the hero’s feelings, and can actually look at the thing from two different angles.
Q: You’ve written about social issues in the “Southern Weekly” for so many years, reporting on earthquakes, river pollution, etc. etc. So what is your view about good and evil, beauty and ugliness in this world?
A: I think that the way the novel understands good and evil differs with the general understanding, for instance that of the philosopher, and mostly from the way today’s world understands it. There, ‘good; is about the greatest happiness and joy for people in general, it’s not my happiness, it’s not your happiness, it’s our happiness, the two of us at the same time.
But in the world of the novel, things can be more messy than that, it is based more on an understanding of human nature, it pays more attention to the individual, and many times, ‘evil’ has a face that can be understood, and ‘good’ a hypocritical side. If you look at Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel ‘The Remains of the Day’, the novel is about honour. Honour is something everyone understands, honour is a good thing, and only a person with a sense of honour will have a sense of shame, and only they can be a good person. People with no sense of honour don’t care about what others say. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel starts a reflection about honour itself. Because it is a cultural thing, not something that people are born with, it is a kind of cultural influence acquired through later education, and so he reflects on the hypocrisy that is part of honour.
In recent years, I’ve started to really appreciate Kundera’s novels “Farewell party” and “The unbearable lightness of being”, because his morality, including the way he looks at politics, and whether a person is brave or cowardly, and the way he looks at human nature, is all very mature, and I appreciate this. Maturity allows us to look at things from a different perspectives, finding that behind what everyone believes cannot be altered, there is only nothingness, I really like this.
Q: Creating a world in the novel, does it put a high demand on the world of the writer themselves? Because today’s urban dwellers are often lost in their own world – imagine asking them to create a world of their own.
A: I’ve always thought that the so-called serious literary writer is not a random Mr such and such or Mrs So and So, that their expectations of life are not the same. If what you’re looking for is fame, there’s many ways you can satisfy your vanity, 在普通的人类世界当 中滚滚红尘，甘之如饴，they’re certainly not a writer. There’s also a lot of writers who do care about fame and fortune, but when you look at their inner world, it’s only just a small part of it.
So for the writer to build a world, they must first have their own unique world, and whether this world is the same as that of previous writers or artists, it doesn’t matter, the important thing is that it’s not the same as that of ordinary people. Literature has one particular point, literature itself, as Wang Xiaobo would define it, that it says ‘you’re all normal people, but my world has a more ambitious twist, in my world water flows uphill, the rabbit eats the wolf, and fruits turn into flowers. This is a necessity for the writer, that you have a different inner world. For example Xia Chong, the protagonist of “Late silence”, he’s a fifteen year old boy, the all entangled type, he thinks this is not right, and he despises that, but the world he desires doesn’t exist. If we think about it from another point of view, we could say that he’s just a child, he can’t understand, that’s not what life is like, and he’ll be alright when he grows up. But the problem is, if you’re a writer, or if you’re a reader of so-called literary works, you realise that things are not so simple.
Q: So for people living in big cities, is this confusion something inherent, or did it happen under the influence of the country and society? Because after all, I think that extreme changes in the Chinese social environment over the last thirty years have actually caused tragedy for many people.
A: If you say that the story of a person can reflect the time they live in, then the role of the novel lies precisely there, in that the period can leave its mark on that person. We all know that people don’t just grow up naturally, but people are shaped by their environment. But you can see this at another level, one level is the one you’re saying, the story of his whole life, not just Xia Chong, other characters are also similar. In particular, the character of Xia Chong’s mother, it is even more obvious that the era has influenced her life, there is a direct influence, and it has changed her destiny. It’s actually a bit better for Xia Chong, and it’s the same for other people, they all receive that kind of influence. But when you go beyond that level, there’s still a question, which encompasses the whole human life, it’s the contradictions among one’s own aspirations, and every human existence has this problem.
For instance, we now all believe that a free market economy and a democratic regime are rather good things. But if you think about the author of “The Catcher in the rye”, he is a typical left-wing image, he’s not at all the kind of right-winger supporting things like free market and free politics, he feels it’s all fake, it’s all phony. And not only does he mock this, but he also mocks culture, and is not satisfied with education, and he’s also not satisfied with young girls making postures to show that they’re sexy, there’s no way. This is life, when you let a young girl show how sexy she is, 不装腔作势吗？做不到的。From the whole of humanity’s wisdom, is there a better system than democracy? There isn’t.
But Holden Caulfield still opposes it, and why does he oppose it? Because people’s fundamental desire is not like that. People’s fundamental desire is that they do want more freedom, but they also don’t want phony hypocritical things happening, you don’t want to infringe on me, and if I don’t want to touch you, you don’t want to touch me either, and then we can play together happily, for instance we can play football very happily, as long as you don’t kick my legs: that is a very fundamental human desire. But can the world be like that? That question goes to another level.
Q: You said that in this age of limitations, writers could be influenced by their environemnt. For yourself, do you think this age is good or bad? And for your creation?
A: I would say that for writing novels, this is a particularly good period, because this period has so much material to write about, but it’s also very challenging, it’s not easy, it’s not so easy to see things clearly. And it’s not enough for us to just say “society now is like this and like that”, it’s not that simple.
For instance when we say “the country went ahead, the citizens went back”, how much ahead did the country go, and how much back did the citizens go, where is the data? Only the officials know the data, we don’t know, no-one knows, how much progress the country has made. We can only see national policy, and the expansion of State power, and then this process of erosion, step by step, but how this mechanism actually works, what detail power really derives from, how it is formed? We don’t understand. So we can only look at it from a distance.
But now, after all, it’s 2011, the times are changing, and this also creates pressure. Let’s say I’m writing a novel now, no matter what I’m writing about, I’m coming with my own agenda and ambition. So now I want to reflect on this era, will I use past methods of analysis? I can’t, they’re outdated. Or will I use Kerouac’s method? It is also outdated. Since the development of society is very fast, I think literary development is also very fast. If you use past methods to describe today’s life, you won’t be able to explain it. 你只是讲人们的纠结，左摇右摆，变得没有出路，这是不行的。This is also a particularly big problem, 实际上他到最后，他会非常得不 通融的结结实实地去要求你自己有自己的看法。或者某种程度上来讲要有独创性，但是这种东西非常非常难的。因为我们是写一个小说，可能学这个学那个，还未必 学得像。但紧接着要求有自己独特的声音。但是我宁可去试，试不好也没问题，你是需要努力的。For instance, let’s take two different mountains. One is the Xiangshan in Beijing, where if you take two hours of moving slowly, and take time to drink a bottle of water, and sit down halfway through, you can still get to the summit, and if you look at the altitude you climbed, you’ve gone 200 meters up. Now let’s go to the Everest: in two hours, you only go up 5 meters. But these five meters on the Everest are a more worthy climb. To return to the novel, if you write a simple novel, you may easily gain a lot of recognition, but there is a type of novel which is hard to write, and the more you want to write well, the more likely that your achievements will be small; but the more valuable they will be.
Q: For you, is the heritage of traditional literature important? And who has influenced you the most?
A: I think this a personal question, not a writing question. And what I mean by a personal question is, how does it influence your personality and your tastes? When it come to that kind of direct influence, the writer who actually had the most influence on me is Hemingway. On many levels, now, my attitude makes me part of the same heritage as Hemingway. And someone very close to Hemingway, the Chinese poet Du Mu.
The two of them are actually similar in many ways. First, both of them have a very sweet quality which is often overlooked. Hemingway is generally considered to be a tough guy, but in fact, Hemingway is not a tough guy at all, and if you really look at his novels, they’re not of this type at all, Hemingway is actually a very sentimental person with a very rich sensibility. Du Mu is the same, and there is actually some similarity in their aesthetic sense. If you look at Hemingway’s novels, especially his shorter novels, his visual perception, he particularly likes to use primary colours, the hills are like white elephants, and the hills themselves are white; he writes about a cat, and the cat is grey; he writes about a bonfire, he doesn’t say anything else, it is always very simple. If you look at Du Mu then, in his poems, colours are red, white, green, blue, like that, there are no other colours. But if you look at Li Shangyin, he’s different, he will write about ‘garnet red’, he won’t simply write ‘red’. This different aesthetic sense reveals the difference in people’s taste. Simple colours are more vivid, they’re simpler, and the colour will be brighter. When Hemingway wrote ‘A moveable feast’, he wrote, during the war in Italy, there was a bridge, and next to the bridge was a small town, and in the town, they sold venison. They were hanging pheasants, this kind and that kind, and when the winter came and the wind was blowing and swaying them around, it felt like seeing innocent young men hanging dead. He will write it just like that, he does not swivel around, and does not give any justification.