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Fortress Besieged, by Qian Zhongshu trans. Jeanne Kelly & Nathan K Mao

China's cracked classic

Long before the Cultural Revolution, Qian Zhongshu had earned a reputation as one of China's most promising writers of fiction. He is immortalised as Mo-cun, the wry and phlegmatic hero of his wife Yang Jiang's Six Chapters from a Cadre's Life (1980). His Fortress Besieged (1947), a leisurely picaresque novel, occupies a watershed position in 20th-century Chinese fiction. Drawing on traditional Chinese techniques of social satire and storytelling, the novel also displays the influences of Western modernism.

It focuses on the experiences of one protagonist, the hapless and unheroic Fang Hung-chien, who returns to China from Europe with a bogus doctorate in search of a life and a wife (and doesn't do too well on either count). Though he courts many women, Fang's final choice proves to be erratic; we leave him on the brink of a break-up and a breakdown.

Yang's elliptical memoir of how she survived her Cultural Revolution experiences of "re-education" in the countryside is illuminated by a compelling portrayal of her long and trusting marriage to Qian. It's ironic, then, that the work for which her husband is celebrated cites a French proverb: "Marriage is like a fortress besieged; those who are outside want to get in, and these who are inside want to get out.'"

Qian doesn't see relationships between the men and women with any grace or graciousness: there are constant reminders of Sartre's belief that hell was other people. Two women appear in the hilarious opening section, which deals with Fang's journey back to China; others follow. None of them, including the one Fang eventually marries, is portrayed with any sympathy. But neither are the men.

Qian delights in tricks, subterfuges and double exposures. Here, he is equally concerned with the postures of Westernised pseudo-intellectuals towards art, life and history, and the changing attitudes of men and women to each other. History, too, casts a spotlight on the book. It is set during the early stages of the Sino-Japanese war, and though Qian makes no explicit comment the desperation of the protagonists can be seen as frantic displacement.

Qian transforms, and subverts, his own experiences with panache. A scholar who after an Oxford education returned to pre-liberation China and stayed on during the Mao years, he was, at the time he wrote the novel, already a happily married man. Jiang was with him in Oxford while he wrote his dissertation.

Like his marital adventure, Fang's academic career, too, reverses his creator's. Qian did very well at Oxford, writing about European literary images of China. Fang - in one of the novel's wickedest set pieces - sends off for a fake degree and cheats the fraud who tries to cheat him.

Fortress Besieged retained a cult reputation during the Mao years. After the fall of the Gang of Four, it enjoyed a full-scale revival, influencing a new generation. Ye Zhaoyan, whose Nanjing 1937: a love story (Faber) echoes and in some ways deepens Qian's work, actually wrote his thesis on this novel.

Qian's ability to see his life and times through the lens of very dark humour, along with his talent for incidental cultural and social observation and his cold and cruel wit, mark out this novel as one of its time's most original works. Fortress Besieged is also entirely devoid of the kind of ideological zeal that mars even some of the finest fictions by Qian's more politically motivated contemporaries. Its long-delayed reappearance of in English - perhaps as a cultural curiosity, definitely as a period piece of distinction - reminds us of those other hidden classics from pre-liberation China that await international recognition: among them, Ba Jin's Family and Xiao Hong's Tales of Hulan River.

Aamer Hussein's 'This Other Salt' has been reissued by Saqi

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