In his 1891 play The Decay of Lying Oscar Wilde has his bookish heroine Vivian declare: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.”
Of course, the phrase has stuck, and has gone on to be used much more widely. And it might just apply to some of Chan Koonchung’s novel, The Fat Years, in mirroring the forces of Chinese economic and social change.
The novel, written in 2009, is a Brave New World-style political satire describing 2013, when money flows like water after a global economic shock that China has managed to weather better than others.
In his dystopian fantasy the population has been lulled into a false sense of happiness by a combination of wealth and repression (as well as the drug ecstasy, which the government is slipping into the water supply).
Only a small band of people has escaped this mass “happiness” but for reasons they themselves don’t understand.
One possibility is that those already on medication for ailments like asthma and depression, are not fallible to drugs in the water supply.
Some of the novel’s fictional predictions, however, now look incredibly close to the mark.
For example, the price of gold in the novel hits a new high of $2,000 per ounce, which Chan admits that he thought “quite outrageous” when he first wrote the novel over two years ago.
In reality, gold peaked this year at just over $1,900, suggesting that he might have made a lot more money punting on the precious metal than he will ever receive from book sales, especially as the book has not been published in China itself.
Chinese publishers clearly didn’t expect the work to get past the censor. Despite this, the BBC reports that copies of The Fat Years have made their way onto the mainland via Hong Kong and Taiwan and “created a buzz”.
Chan himself is China-born, resident in Beijing but was raised in Hong Kong and Taiwan – all of which gives him a somewhat unique outlook.
The Fat Years is a critique of a nation that puts materialism and GDP growth before individual liberties and political freedoms. Most Chinese in the book knowingly choose to live in a wealthy “counterfeit paradise” engineered by the government, rather than face the “good hell” of the deeper truth of their politically-repressed society.
A key event in the plot is a global economic bust-up in 2011 (again, sounds like Chan was rather prescient), with police having to restore order after a series of uprisings.
But there is a deliberate delay in doing so: to scare the middle classes and impress on them the necessity of one-party rule.
As Chan writes in the novel, “because they are afraid of anarchy and chaos, everyone is prepared to bow down voluntarily before the power of a quite unlovely Leviathan.”
It isn’t particularly difficult to see what Chen is trying to allude to. “China is not there yet, but it’s scarily close”, the author reckons. Meanwhile he’s travelling outside China a fair bit these days, promoting the English language version of the book, which comes out in January in the United States with Doubleday, part of Random House.
So could the world economy be headed for the 2011 ructions that Chan foresaw when he penned the novel in 2009?
Life does seem to be imitating art to a limited extent, with China watching closely to see if the eurozone will collapse under its debt burden. If that was to spark another worldwide financial crisis, Chan’s powers of prophesy would look rather uncanny.
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