Friday, March 7, 2008

China Babel

YouKu 优酷 is a good example of what may be called "Sino-English," which I predict will become increasingly evident in the years to come, until Chinese and English experience a kind of blending (a veritable Mischsprache?) which is the theme of an unpublished, futuristic novel called China Babel that I wrote about 15 years ago.

Mark Liberman of Language Log maddens his fans. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the futuristic sections of Cloud Atlas linguistically implausible; would LOVE to see China Babel. (I mention in passing that The Last Samurai originally had a final futuristic section which used a writing system which was an amalgam of Chinese and Arabic, or rather there was a sketch of this futuristic section which I planned to finish when I had all the necessary software, but somehow it seemed too much. I AM alone, I know, in seeing The Last Samurai as a minimalist, ruthlessly pared-down work of fiction in which much is left out, not least because I am also alone in having seen the amazing futuristic section written in an amalgam of Chinese and Arabic...)


nsiqueiros said...

It seems like such a rarity for you to mention The Last Samurai. You've expressed some disdain in the past with how the editing turned out, and even with the title you had originally wanted "The Seventh Samurai" but had to settle for "The Last Samurai".

It all seemed like this exhausting uphill battle that you had to go through. Is a not-what-you-wanted-it-to-be published book better than a literary-integrity-intact unpublished book? I can see the pros and cons of both sides, but I say all this through the perspective of someone whose published works exist in the future(fingers crossed), not the present.

I read The Last Samurai and think, "This is how books should be, or is this just the beginning?" You had this vision of how it should have been, and I imagine for you the vision only half came true. I imagine when you look at the book you see this painting of some beautiful work of art that wasn't appreciated, so people decided to try and enhance it as they saw fit, but just ended up covering up what was great about it in the first place. Or perhaps it's like the color engravings you described in the novel itself: "so that what was brilliant cobalt was represented by blue so pale it was almost white, vermilion crimson and scarlet by pink so pale almost white . . . so that the reader might taste in a glass of water a real drop of whiskey". Maybe us readers were deprived of the Technicolor aspects of the novel by the publisher, but I'll take a ruthlessly pared-down work of good fiction over annoyingly loud, bad fiction.

Your idea of China Babel is interesting. I grew up in Southeastern Arizona, and in my town we speak Spanglish. The English is more dominant and the Spanish is used for emphasis on a specific word, phrase, or idea.

You should also check out the American television show Firefly. It's set in the future where the United States and China have merged into one nation and the main characters speak a mixed language, not as extreme a mixing of what you describe China Babel to be, but still a mix. The characters speak English the majority of the time, and really only use Chinese to express the stronger things they want to say such as profanity or sensuality. Thought you might want to check it out. You can watch the whole series for free on There are only 14 episodes as it got canceled rather quickly I'm sad to say.

Anyhoo, that's my take on all of this. I'm intrigued to see anything you have of your China Babel novel or futuristic final chapter from The Last Samurai. Intrigued/desperate. You know what I mean. I'm still praying for a miracle, and that The Last Samurai gets published in ebook format so I can read it on my Sony Reader. Maybe someday, eh?

This comment turned into a novel all its own. Sorry 'bout that.

Ithaca said...

I'm not sure I understand the alternatives of published vs unpublished as set out.

Let's say I am offered two options:

1. Write a book.

2. Write a book, have it published and have my leg amputated.

Is it better to have an unpublished book or have a book published and have your leg amputated?

Would it be worth having your leg amputated if the book were published exactly the way you wanted?

If you had your leg amputated and the book was not published exactly the way you wanted, would your primary concern be the fact that the book was not published the way you wanted? That you could have kept the BOOK intact by declining publication?

Let's say I am offered 2 different options:

1. Write a book.

2. Write a book, have it published, and have the mind that wrote it destroyed.

If I am offered those alternatives, it is obvious that I must choose 1, because I can then use the mind that wrote the book to write many more books. This does not preclude the possibility of publishing both the first book and subsequent books at a later date. If I choose 2, this precludes the possibility of writing books of comparable or greater quality, and if they are not written they can, obviously, never be published.

nsiqueiros said...

Yeah, my question didn't really set out alternatives of published vs. unpublished. It was just one of those questions that pops into your head. I felt like asking it just to see what you would say. Leg amputation. That's a good analogy.

If a museum were to buy a painting, it wouldn't dare think of trying to rework the painting to make it more accessible to more people; and yet publishers do this exact thing to writers. You've proven this so; and yet no one sees that changing a writer's words is just as bad as changing an artist's painting.

There's a societal assumption that because someone loves to write, they obviously will want others to read their work. Not all things written are meant to be read by all. Just like all things painted by an artist are not meant to be seen by all.

Leaving a book unpublished so as to keep your sanity intact definitely sounds like the better alternative. History has shown that most great artists are really only appreciated posthumously. I hope this will not be your fate. What I mean is that I hope more people come to appreciate you now rather than just later. You are a writer who writes things worth reading. I am the reader who can taste the drop of whiskey in the water, and I know I want more.

Ithaca said...

This feels strangely like a discussion with a tragic chorus.

nsiqueiros said...

Fair enough.