If you think about history globally, you realize that energy, money, excitement, money—all that stuff—passes to different places at different times. It’s often said that Paris was the capital of the 19th century. However, Hitler’s easy capture of Paris pretty much put an end to that. So the energy, the moxie—call it what you will—passed to New York. New Yorkers, liked to say that their city was the capital of the world until 9/11 made that title problematic.
Now it’s Beijing’s turn. Beijing can boast of Rem Koolhaas’ daring, widely praised building for Chinese television, not to mention the Bird’s Nest and the other remarkable structures built for the 2008 Olympics. The success of that event, and the combination of a new China that is flexing its muscles and an America that is increasingly muscle-bound, make Beijing the new New York.
Or, to quote from the forward to Jonathan Tel’s intriguing collection of short stories, The Beijing of Possibilities, “The true Beijinger secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
One way you know that a given city dominates a given time period is that people start writing “young man from the provinces” stories about it. Sometimes a young man comes to the big city from the provinces and makes it big, as d’Artagnan does when he comes to Paris in The Three Musketeers. Sometimes the young man from the provinces comes to a bad end, as Jay Gatsby does in The Great Gatsby. But between The Great Gatsby and today’s writers stands Franz Kafka, who made the multi-cultural qualities of Prague a paradigm for modern weirdness.
That’s where Jonathan Tel comes in. He writes young man (or woman) from the provinces stories, stories that have some of Kafka’s weirdness, but make that weirdness part of the experience of moving from the provinces to the big city. He evokes the dilemmas and ambiguities of life in post-Mao Beijing, whose economy is neither fully communist nor fully capitalist. The very titles of his stories, not to mention their characters, linger in the mind.
“Love! Duty! Humanity! Virtue!” is the most unlikely, but fitting, title of a story told by a young man who sets off for Beijing in search of a cotton candy making machine. A parable, perhaps, of the new Chinese capitalism?
“The Book of Auspicious and Inauspicious Dreams” deals with a couple’s symbolic attempts to come to the terms with China’s past. They find a container hidden in a wall, and track down its original owner, only to find that she will have nothing to do with it.
Any story with the title “The Glamorous Heart of
Cosmopolitan Beijing” is surely ironic, right? Well, maybe. It begins with
Chinese pickpockets on a bus, and ends with romance. Or is it exploitation? In
Beijing, arguably the world’s most important city in the 21st century, you
can’t always tell what’s what.
As Jack Nicholson said in quite a different context, it’s Chinatown.