Playing with Joyce

The not-so-strange popularity of 'Finnegans Wake' in China

The Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake, one of the world's best known but least read books, is a sellout. This is not necessarily strange news. Worldwide, interior decorators drive the sales of books that are perceived to be posh, serving clients who may not have the time, inclination or capacity to read, but must put up an appearance of profundity. Decorators select books that go tastefully with the furniture and drapes while feeding the intellectual fantasies of the client. In booming China, the housing construction boom may partly explain the success of James Joyce's last book.

But the translator, Congrong Dai, says that Joyce is a hit in China because he disdains constraints on speech. Finnegans Wake uses an artificial language and portmanteaus cobbled together from roots and stems in about 60 languages. It is the most difficult text in an experimental English universe whose brightest stars include Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. And for years, the Chinese have been playing with language to bypass censorship on the internet.

Chinese is rife with homophones, words that sound identical but have completely different meanings. The phrase cao ni ma (grass mud horse) is used in place of a popular obscenity that is frequently directed at state and party. In neo-capitalist China, the old party slogan "Look ahead to the future" is reprised as "Look for money". This is an old tradition: "Project 571", the code name for Lin Biao's 1971 plot to unseat Mao, sounds rather like "armed rising". Joyce can only be popular in this linguistically playful milieu. Or is Finnegans Wake selling because there can never be a crackdown on its readers? Because no censor could possibly understand it.

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