SOMEONE TO TALK TO is a contemporary novel by Liu Zhenyun that meditates on human connection and loneliness in rural twentieth-century China. Originally published in Chinese as YIJU DING WANJU (literal translation: "One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand"), the novel won the Mao Dun Literature Prize, China's top literary award, in 2011. In this translation by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, Zhenyun recounts a series of one-sided friendships, doomed marriages, and fruitless attempts to connect meaningfully with another person. The plot follows two loners, separated by a generation, searching for friendship in rural China.
The book is divided into two interconnected parts. The first part, set in pre-Maoist China, follows Yang Baishun, initially identified as a tofu peddler but who repeatedly changes his name and occupation as he struggles to find identity and vocation. He yearns for meaningful and satisfying friendship (which he never finds) and settles instead for a marriage of convenience. After his wife abandons him with her child to run off with another man, Yang goes through the motions of tracking her down, but his search is derailed when his five-year-old stepdaughter is kidnapped. The remainder of this section is dedicated to Yang’s unsuccessful quest to find her.
The second part of the novel, set seventy years in the future in the post-socialist period, concerns thirty-five-year-old Niu Aiguo, whose primary motivation is to discover his late mother's past. Eventually it is revealed that his mother is actually Yang Baishun's kidnapped stepdaughter. He too struggles to connect and forge friendships; he complains that honest, supportive men are hard to come by, and everyone is more devious than they appear.
The two halves of the novel feature a number of parallels, most notably that the two protagonists are linked by a search for the same woman. SOMEONE TO TALK TO features an extensive cast of characters, a complex web of social connections, and a strong emphasis on community. It delivers a simple but potent message that we all need to communicate more to facilitate our individual search for human connection.
“Very rarely does one encounter a novel from contemporary China that transcends the mere story, however spectacular or unheard of, and wrestles so deeply and intimately with the structural truth and secrecy of the way things are. A stunning display of the mimetic power of language and narrative, and through masterful arrangement of sentences seeking and connecting with each other, Someone to Talk To invites all of us to rethink the meaning of realism and, for that matter, of literature as such.”
Xudong Zhang, author of Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century
Liu Zhenyun is a Chinese writer who has written a number of bestselling novels. He is one of the most famous and celebrated writers in contemporary China. He has been honoured by France as a Knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Liu’s works include the novels Hometown, Regime and Blood, Anecdotes in the Hometown, Material and Spirit in the Hometown, Nonsense Talk, Cell Phone, The Cook, the Crook, and the Real Estate Tycoon, Someone to Talk To, I Did Not Kill My Husband, and Watermelon Eaters.
His work has been translated into numerous languages including English, French, Germ...
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