The next Chinese New Year will begin on Feb. 12, 2021. It will be the year of the Ox. The first real publishing season since the pandemic started will begin at about the same time. In America and elsewhere, I suspect, it will be the year of the Diary.
Writers in lockdown are, like everyone else, feeling pale and postoperative. The pandemic has thrown a spanner into best-laid plans. A diary, as soldiers, prisoners and invalids have long understood, can be a good way to write oneself out of a bad spot.
The Chinese novelist Fang Fang lives in downtown Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. After that city went into quarantine in January, she began keeping an online diary about her experience. Wuhan remained shut down for 76 days, and is still struggling to return to anything resembling normalcy.
In her diary, Fang Fang wrote about quotidian things: food, pets, sleep, friends. She talked about weeping, and about her country’s mental health. Her diary provided a daily catharsis. She monitored newspapers and the internet, keeping tabs on what was happening outside her small housing project.
She told uncomfortable truths about China’s fumbling response to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Censors regularly squelched her. Chinese nationalists mounted a trolling campaign against her, claiming she was besmirching Wuhan’s rosy-cheeked image. Her entries began to seem like samizdat.
She kept at her task. She gradually became a national hero, read by millions starving for something other than the dissembling and patriotic gruel issued by the government and by Chinese media conglomerates. Her diary has now been published in English as an e-book, “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches From a Quarantined City.”
她坚持不懈地记录着。她逐渐成了一个民族英雄，成百上千万的人如饥似渴地读她的作品，而不是政府和中国媒体上的那种遮遮掩掩的爱国主义大杂烩。她的日记现在以电子书的形式出版，名为《武汉日记：来自被隔离城市的报道》(Wuhan diary: Dispatches From a quarantine City)。
Fang Fang captures the shock and panic at the start of the quarantine; people in Wuhan had been told that the coronavirus was “not contagious between people,” that it was easily controllable and not to worry. The truth hit hard.
The author is in her mid-60s, and lives alone with her old and increasingly stinky dog. (When she runs out of pet food, she feeds her dog rice instead.) She takes the quarantine seriously. She has diabetes, and is aware the virus could kill her.
She finds much to admire in people’s response to the shutdown. Neighbors form grocery collectives. When the food arrives, they lower buckets from their apartment windows and reel it up, as if it were minnows in a net. She notes the performance of many small kindnesses.
She has a fascination with the eerie, empty city, which is “quiet and beautiful, almost majestic,” as long as you aren’t sick. Watching the sanitation workers stoically going about their tasks fills her with emotion.
At the same time, she writes, “You begin to see things you never imagined humans were capable of.” With hospitals full, the sick wander the streets looking for help. Some of those trapped in Wuhan from elsewhere end up living in tunnels.
Forgotten old people subsist on their remaining crackers. With borders quickly shut and travel not permitted, there are diasporas within diasporas.
She zeros in on dark scenes. She is horrified to see a photograph of a pile of cellphones on the floor of a funeral home. Their owners have been quickly cremated.
She writes about the now infamous Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which has been linked to the start of the outbreak. After the market was abandoned, some fish were left behind, she writes, and they “started to emit a wretched stench.”
There were more than a thousand vendors at the market, she writes, and nearly all ran legitimate businesses. She notes that they are victims, too.
“I wonder what the site of the market will become in the future,” she writes. “Some people have suggested turning it into a memorial hall dedicated to this calamity.”
Fang Fang discusses Chinese versus Western medicine. Because she is plugged into the cultural and academic worlds in Wuhan, there is a roll call of the deaths of many well-known artists, journalists and professors. There is an interesting sense, in this diary, of an intellectual proletariat. She talks about rumors that the novels of Mario Vargas Llosa have been banned because of an essay he wrote about the virus.
方方讨论中西医的区别。由于她与武汉的文化和学术圈有着密切的联系，书中有许多知名艺术家、记者和教授的死讯。在这本日记中，有一种有趣的知识无产阶级的感觉。她谈到马里奥·巴尔加斯·略萨(Mario Vargas Llosa)的小说被禁的传言，因为他写了一篇关于这种病毒的文章。
She is alert to rumor, “painted full of tongues,” as Shakespeare understood, and conspiracy theories. She watches as “this virus continues to roam the city like an evil spirit, appearing whenever and wherever it pleases.” She studies the way boredom and terror, not a combination humans are accustomed to, mingle and ferment. Her world has dwindled to the size of her tiny living space.
This is an important and dignified book that nonetheless, in this adept translation by Michael Barry, has its share of dead space and repetition. “Wuhan Diary” would have been twice as good at half the length. It’s a bit easier to praise, as Tom Wolfe said of the William Shawn-era New Yorker, than it is to read. Still, the urgency of this account is impossible to deny.
这是一本重要而庄严的书，白睿文(Michael Barry)的翻译炉火纯青，然而其中仍有一些死角和重复。《武汉日记》的篇幅如果只有一半，会让它更加好上一倍。正如汤姆·沃尔夫(Tom Wolfe)评价威廉·肖恩(William shawn)时代的《纽约客》(New Yorker)时所说的，赞美它比读它更容易。然而，这份叙事的迫切性是无法否认的。
This book is most scorching in Fang Fang’s calls to hold to account the leaders who downgraded and minimized the virus, wasting nearly three weeks and allowing it to seep into the world at large. She rallies around this topic like Henry V pacing the floorboards before the Battle of Agincourt. She may live meekly during the lockdown, but she writes bold sentences.
She wants Chinese culture to change, for people to be more willing to admit error, to stand up and take blame.
“We are all aching for the opportunity to really let someone have it,” she writes. “Actually unloading all our anger on someone or something would be a productive psychological outlet for most of us. My daughter once asked her 99-year-old grandfather what his secret to a long life was. His response: ‘Eat a lot of fatty meat, don’t exercise and be sure to curse out anyone who deserves it.’” The society needs to pass a kidney stone.
What advice does “Wuhan Diary” have for a world emerging from lockdown? What the virus most craves, Fang Fang writes, “is for more people to start venturing outside.” She also writes: “There has to be a way forward that no one has come up with yet.”