A QUIP FROM ANOTHER ERA, usually attributed to Aldous Huxley, defined an intellectual as someone—presumably a man—who discovers there are more interesting things in life than women. Reading the exiled Chinese poet and writer Liao Yiwu suggests a less sexist corollary to this badly dated notion: the best writers are artists who have learnt that other people are more interesting than themselves.
Liao, the author of a famous poem of dissent that circulated underground after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, began his writing life as a self-obsessed poet of uncertain quality, and underwent a prison conversion to become a talented and inventive chronicler of the lives of others. His work exhibits the wandering spirit of one of his early heroes, Jack Kerouac, and some of the style of John Dos Passos and Studs Terkel, who drew on the techniques of journalism to capture lives through interviews. One also finds pungent notes of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish writer of errant political and social observations who, like Liao, was part old-fashioned reporter, part fabulist. But these comparisons are only very approximate, because Liao’s work is so original that it is hard to pigeonhole except in the most generic way, as brilliant literary non-fiction.
In books like The Soccer War, whose title story is about a military conflict between two Central American states sparked by a football match, and The Emperor, a work full of shadows and whispers about palace intrigue during the slow-motion demise of the late Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie, Kapuscinski took historical events and heightened them through vivid acts of license-taking re-imagination. In Liao’s best books, like The Corpse Walker, a collection of 27 interviews that bore the subtitle “Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up”, he doesn’t wander the world as Kapuscinski did. Instead he wanders the landscape of his own country, paying little heed to current events, and ferreting out the stories of people who are trying to piece their lives together after the shattering of the Cultural Revolution and the equally radical decades of high-growth state capitalism that followed.