Speaking in Tongues

Andrea Berrini
Mar 10th, 2014

For an Italian writer and publisher unable to speak Chinese, meeting writers in China is sometimes an interesting experience.

I have been publishing Asian novels in Italy for four years, and my own way to scout for them is unusual: I do not attend Book Fairs in the West (or in the East), and neither do I sit and wait for proposals to come in from international agents. I have always taken it for granted that I can interact on my own with local “literary scenes”, or whatever you may call them. I enjoy meeting people who have spent their life publishing the good books they love, meeting authors and drinking Maotai, whisky and red wine with them, travelling around the villages where they were born, and looking with them for the exact spot where their grandfather’s carpentry workshop was.

It may seem not very professional, I know that, but this is my way. I was comforted on this point by one of my best friends in Beijing, Zhu Wen, the poet, writer and movie director. He once told me: ‘I do not want to be a professional writer. Writing is not a job.’ Good: we share the same feelings. On that day we became closer friends.

Once, I attended a dinner held by a publisher. He intended to celebrate with an author of his, whose book had recently been released. I won’t tell you the name of the writer, because he ended up with his head in a noodle bowl, noisily sleeping. But I enjoyed that dinner because of this memory. In the end we phoned the writer’s brother to come and drive his car home. His writer friend, Feng Tang, attended the dinner. As soon as we sat down to dinner, Feng Tang, who spends part of his time in Hong Kong, said: ‘Tonight, no literature. I want to talk about other subjects, and just to enjoy the dinner. And also to drink.’ I, the Italian publisher/writer, he knew, was very good at this.

I feel confortable in such situations: maybe just because I am an Italian (an old one – white hair, grandfather already, twice married) and I remember how beautiful Italy was thirty or forty years ago when there were no PR around and no marketing managers. Artists used to gather in smoky bars; not being pop stars at all, just human beings wishing to fight their own solitude.

I wrote and published four books in Italy, and in the past twenty years people surrounding me have asked strange questions: ‘Oh, I guess as a writer you must have a brilliant life! Full of parties, isn’t it? What famous people you must meet!’

You crazy? Ask me who I am, what I feel and think; ask me about my opinions, please. That is what I do with writers around China (and Asia in general). I am not sure I have been able to scout the best authors in the continent (I am not a professional, as you know), but I meet great people. And it is fascinating to see how easy is to talk to men and women who can speak only Chinese.

I met A Yi in Beijing at least five times, always with an interpreter, and you all know that meeting someone with an interpreter leads to a series of sterile questions and answers no good for anything other than to be reported in some fashionable magazine. Well, it was not like that for us. A Yi and I are able to joke, to play cat and mouse with each other, even to become angry over some negative statement and then feel strongly for each other’s misfortunes (and frequently cheering each other up in the process).

So thank you, China, and thank you, Asia, for reminding me of the old days in Italy, when my country and I were growing up, as China is growing up now. Thank you Liu Zhenyun for offering me a great dinner, the usual imperial dinner lasting hours and hours, a time when we were hardly able to exchange a single sentence: and then, at the end, for inviting me to visit you in your hometown in Henan. Which I will do as soon as possible. And very unprofessionally, you can be sure.


Andrea Berrini
Last blog date: Jul 18th, 2014


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