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Liu Zhenyun x David Wagner: Where life stops, literature appears

At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 12, 2020, the first activity of the Fifth China-EU International Literary Festival officially begins. The first activity of the China-EU International Literary Festival was a dialogue between Chinese writer Liu Zhenyun and German writer David Wagner. They had a wonderful literary dialogue on the theme of writing career. During the event, the two writers not only talked about their understanding of literature, but also exchanged their literary creation during the epidemic period and their outlook on literary life in the post epidemic.


Liu Zhenyun is a writer who is familiar to Chinese readers. He uses calm and objective narrative style to depict monotonous life and satirize daily power relations. He has written Someone to Talk To, Regime and Blood, The Real Estate tycoon, and I Did Not Kill My Husband. He has won the Mao Dun Literature Award, the highest honor award from Egypt’s Ministry of culture, and France’s Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.


David Wagner, who has a dialogue with Liu Zhenyun, enjoys a high international reputation. He is a famous contemporary German novelist who has been living in Berlin since 1991. His first work, Meine nachtblaue Hose, was published in 2000 and won a grand prize; his novel Vier Äpfel was long-listed for the German Book Prize; the best-selling novel Leben won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2013 and the Best Foreign Novel of the Year Award 2014 in China. He was Friedrich Dürrenmatt Guest Professor for World Literature at University Bern and his books have been translated into 16 languages. His most recent novel Der vergessliche Riese won the Bayerische Literaturpreis 2019. Leben and Vier Äpfel have been published in China by People’s Literature Publishing House, translated by Le Yan. Leben won the Best Foreign Book Award in China in 2014.


Dai Weina, a young poet, also participated in the conversation and was the host of the conversation. She graduated from Oxford University in England. Her works have both classical and elegant temperament and western education. She has published poetry anthology Slim Jiangnan, fairy tale collection Fairy Grass Girl and other works.


Liu Zhenyun and David Wagner first talked about the process of their acquaintance with literature. David Wagner greeted the Chinese readers, pointed out that in such a period, it is very meaningful to discuss literature and writing. He believes that “literature and writing have been exploring the meaning of life.” He reviewed his career as a writer and mentioned the important influence of losing his mother in childhood. In those difficult years, facing the fact of death, Wagner chose the way of literature.


Liu Zhenyun welcomed Wagner to start this literary dialogue with him during the epidemic. He shared his experience in reading Wagner’s works and his own several novels translated into German, such as I Did Not Kill My Husband and Remembering 1942. On the significance of literature and writing, Liu Zhenyun thinks, “where life stops, literature appears.” He used I Did Not Kill My Husband as an example to describe how an ordinary rural woman in China rose up to revolt after encountering a huge misunderstanding but was also ignored. However, such a covered character should be the focused object of literary. “When Li Xuelian (the heroine of I Did Not Kill My Husband) said to the cow in her family, ‘do you believe I’m not a bad woman? ’She had a second cow by her side. His name was Liu Zhenyun.” He describes his understanding of the role of an author.


Then, the two writers talked about the experience of reading each other’s works. Wagner appreciated Liu’s social care for characters with low class social status, and his realistic writing with humor and compassion. Liu thinks that Wagner is a unique writer, because he does not regard a certain character as the protagonist of the novel, but devotes himself to describing a profound life experience through the novel. His ability to capture life scenes is extremely powerful. He took Leben as an example and talked about Wagner’s flowing writing style. His novel chapters are not lengthy yet contain intensive experience in a short space. His narrative skills integrate realism and stream of consciousness, and have a keen observation of smell, color and details of life.


The theme of the 5th China-EU International Literary Festival is “Recovery / Reflection”, which aims to explore global issues from the perspective of writers, celebrate literary culture and think deeply about society. The two writers also shared their views on this topic.


They discussed the “lightness and weight” of literature and how to resist forgetting. Wagner said, “it’s really a difficult question. As a writer, it’s very difficult for us to decide how we write. The starting point of my writing is that writing is so interesting that I have to understand how it happens and why it exists. He thinks literature is an art of looking for some kind of reality in life. Writers can approach the answer of life through satire and humor.


As for how to deal with the heavy topic, Liu Zhenyun, took his work Remembering 1942 as an example, talked about the drought in 1942 in Henan Province, where millions of people left their homes and fled the wilderness. How should the writer deal with this heavy historical event? Liu Zhenyun said what made him really want to write this book was that many years ago, he returned to his hometown Yanjin County, Henan Province to interview the descendants of the victims of the great famine in Henan Province in 1942. He asked his grandmother about what happened in 1942, and she asked, “What year was 1942?” “It was the year of starvation,” Liu said. Then his grandmother asked, “There are too many years of starvation. Which year do you mean?” Later, this dialogue was included in his reportage novel Remembering 1942, which also became the end of the film director Feng Xiaogang’s new film 1942.


Liu compared the different attitudes of foreigners and Chinese towards death. “A European or an American would ask, why should I die? Why does the government sit idly by? But the people of Henan left the world with one last humor. Lao Zhang was dying. He thought of his friend Lao Li, who had died three days ago, and felt that he had lived three days longer than him, which was worth it. No regrets. ”


Liu thinks that “in the face of austerity, we may as well adopt a humorous way. When disasters happen frequently, they become severe. To deal with austerity, austerity becomes a piece of iron. When you touch iron with an egg, it breaks. But when you use humor to deal with austerity, austerity becomes a piece of ice and humor is the sea. When the severe ice falls into the sea, it melts. ”


In the Q&A session, listener Mr. Wang asked Wagner, “if literature can predict the future to a certain extent, could it also bring a reflection on the future?” “I hope literature can be anything,” Wagner said. “It may be exaggeration to say that literature can foresee the future. Sometimes it needs some kind of coincidence. For example, when I was writing a book, I envisioned a moment when Berlin became an empty space during the day, but in everyday reality, it was very difficult to achieve. But we know that the sudden epidemic and the sudden blockade have made it possible for us to find empty places everywhere in Berlin, which we did not expect before.”


Wagner mentioned that good literature should be a reflection of life. Some readers asked about the reflective role of literature during the epidemic. Liu replied, “the impact of the epidemic on the world is very enormous. During the epidemic, many people, including writers, are also reflecting on the current life.”


And when a reader asked about “what are the ways to collect humor and apply it to fiction?” Liu answered with a smile, “life is full of humor, even to the absurd situation. Some foreign readers say that I am the most humorous person in China. In fact, I am not. There are many people in China who are more humorous than me. In our village, I am the least humorous person. ”


In response to how the writers deal with the global epidemic, Wagner added that “for the global epidemic, it may also be a task for all the writers. We need to find a way to describe it, present it, and record the current predicament in a literary way, rather than ignore it. ”


At the end of the event, Wagner and Liu Zhenyun sent good wishes to each other. In nowadays’ epidemic situation, they hope that literature can make readers have more confidence in life.


In the past four EU-China International Literary festivals, Chinese and European writers gathered together to exchange literary creation and ideas, presenting a series of high-quality dialogue activities to the public. Once again, this year’s 5th China EU International Literary Festival will continue the literary dialogue between China and Europe by many outstanding Chinese writers and 27 writers from EU Member States.


As the host of the opening ceremony of the China-EU International Literary Festival and Ambassador of the European Union to China, Nicolas Chapuis said: “Literature can indeed help us to better understand the world around us. Books can remind us not to forget our values when times are getting rough. Reading can enable us to reflect how to turn a crisis into an opportunity, to steer the ship safely through stormy weathers into a brighter future. ”


By Zong Cheng

Translated into English by Helen Qiu