A Yi’s ambition — and his ruin: One writer’s search for roots in a rootless time

Society & Culture

“Their paranoia, their psyches and phobias, are a reflection of reality.”


It was on an ordinary night in the police office of a small town in Jiangxi Province that A Yi, then a twentysomething police officer, saw the future. He was playing mahjong with the deputy chief, who was in his thirties, and the deputy, who was in his forties, and a retired officer. As happens in mahjong, when it came time to change seats, A Yi rotated into the deputy’s position, and the deputy moved into the chief’s. It was in this way that A Yi understood the life of a provincial clerk: If he stayed on course, he would follow the path of his supervisors, doing nothing but rotating until the end of this mediocre provincial life.

This is the story that A Yi 阿乙 (real name Ai Guozhu 艾国柱), author of A Perfect Crime and other books, has told on many occasions. Following his father’s wishes, he attended a police academy and served as an officer, first in a secluded rural town where there was no asphalt road, a place where, as he bluntly told a group of us at a book club meeting, “If you fuck a girl, you had to take care of her all the rest of your life.” He was then transferred to a small city, where his work involved receiving and sending documents, which made him feel “bruised by the end of the day.” It was there that he experienced his moment of enlightenment at the mahjong table.

He decided to make a change and start a journey that would bring him to Beijing. He left his stable job with potential for advancement, to the great distress of his family, and became a sports editor in Zhengzhou. He arrived in Beijing in 2004. Meanwhile, he was writing fiction during this time, which was his true passion. Though he had never delighted in his former job as a cop, those experiences proved to be an enormous inspiration for his writing.

A Yi’s stories feature a lot of crime, often described in a detached tone. In Accident Murders (意外杀人事件 yìwài shārén shìjiàn), a desperate man goes to the police to seek help; dismissed by the police, he indiscriminately kills six people at a street crossing. In A Perfect Crime (its Chinese title, 下面我该干些什么 xiàmiàn wǒ gāi gàn xiē shénme, translates as Now, What Shall I Do Next?), a teenager, seeing no meaning in the world and bored with his life, kills his female classmate and feels a sense of purpose as he is being pursued by the police. His latest novel, Wake Me Up at 9 AM (早上九点叫醒我 zǎoshang jiǔ diǎn jiào xǐng wǒ), depicts a life of violence and deceit.

I asked A Yi about his interest in such delinquent characters. “Their paranoia, their psyches and phobias, are a reflection of reality,” he said. “I think some of those [people’s conditions] may be congenital, while some people are shaped by the environment, and often neglected. By writing the extreme, I am hoping to drive at something universal about human nature in our time.”

“Most crimes are actually accidental,” A Yi claims. So it’s no wonder that he distances himself from the crime genre. Instead, the criminal motif is used to explain the behaviors of his characters, who are often taken from real life. A big fan of Kafka and Camus, A Yi willingly admits the influence of The Stranger, and takes on existential matters such as the rootlessness of humans in society.

“It is not easy to write about contemporary China,” A Yi said. Crime is the lens through which he perceives and makes sense of the complicated time China is going through. His main objective seems to be trying to anchor China in this rootless time.

In the recent past, taking that as his ambition, A Yi wrote day and night, accompanied by cigarettes and alcohol to stay awake. In 2014, while working on Wake Me Up at 9 AM, the intensity of his work became too much. He fell seriously ill and spent months in a hospital. After he recovered, he looked like a totally different person due to all his medication. His writing slowed down, and his recovery has been gradual ever since. During my interview with him, he talked for half an hour before he had to stop and rest.

A Yi said that after finishing Wake Me Up at 9 AM, his nerves calmed, but stated, “I am still filled with anxiety, whenever I start a new writing project, until I finish the writing.”

Because of health issues, A Yi said he feels it more urgent than ever to read and write. On another occasion, A Yi, another friend, and I were sitting in a car and chatting when, in the middle of the conversation, A Yi took out a book and started reading. My friend and I were not surprised. Only after the conversation shifted back to literature did A Yi lift his head and rejoin us. He has never put on pretenses of practicing social graces.

Although he has lived in Beijing for 14 years now, A Yi still doesn’t identify with the city. “I feel isolated, and live mostly with my family,” he said. Every day he gets up early, writes a bit, then reads most of the day. He occasionally goes out for walks and to meet friends.

After our interview, as we were waiting for a bus, he said to me, offhandedly, that he has almost exhausted his county and town experiences in his writing, and so this old theme was coming to an end. He seemed to be implying that a new journey — a literary one, this time — awaited.

image2 1Deva Eveland, host of the Spittoon Book Club in Beijing, contributed to this article. Photos courtesy of A Yi.

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