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Inside Han Song’s Visionary World of ‘Hospital’: A Talk with Translator Michael Berry

Last Updated on 2024/01/21

Exploring the Dystopian World of the first volume of Han Song’s Hospital Trilogy: An Interview with Michael Berry

Michael Berry, translator of Han Song’s science-fiction book “Hospital,” talks about the inspirations behind the book, the complexities of its genre and style, and its reception in China and internationally. In “Hospital” by Han Song, Yang Wei’s routine business trip takes a dark turn when a bottle of mineral water from his hotel minibar leaves him with a mysterious illness. Forced into a dystopian hospital system, Yang Wei struggles to navigate its labyrinthine corridors and unravel its secrets. Along the way, he confronts his own troubled mind in a twisted tale of corruption and survival. 

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  • When you start reading the book, you immediately notice Kafka’s portrayals of large and complex bureaucratic organizations or the lesser-known short story by Dino Buzzati called “Seven Floors”. However, as the book progresses, it takes on a surreal, unsettling, and even philosophical tone. What inspired the creation of this book?

I spoke to the author about the inspirations behind the book, and he mentioned two main ones. The first was his personal history as a patient for 30 years, suffering from various ailments and repeatedly going in and out of hospitals. The second was his career in the bureaucratic system of the Chinese government. He has worked for Xinhua news, which is one of the largest state-owned news corporations in China, for many decades as a journalist and a senior editor of English in the English interview room. I think his dual experience of personal suffering and working in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic system influenced and inspired him. As a writer, he was also influenced by literary works such as Kafka, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Japanese anime, mashed up into this incredibly strange, intricate universe in the book. Those literary influences were a huge part of the driving force behind the book as well. 

As a translator, what drew me to the book was my personal history of suffering from chronic illness for over a decade. When I read the first few chapters of “Hospital,” I was struck by how it captured the absurdity of being caught in a bureaucratic and nightmarish hospital system in many so-called first-world countries, where patients are sent from one specialist to another and undergo endless tests with no answers. Although it’s a fictional and allegorical work, I think it also speaks to personal experiences for myself and the author.

Hospital cover
The cover of the book HOSPITAL by Han Song (Amazon Crossing; March 1, 2023; Trade Paperback Original; $16.99, audiobook; $14.95)
  • How did you handle the complexities of “Hospital’s” genre and style, which draws from suspense, social satire, critical realism, and experimental fiction?

It was incredibly challenging, because after you get through the first prologue, which feels almost like a classic science fiction adventure, we’re suddenly in a realist world. Then the elements of realism start to give way as the story becomes increasingly uncanny. Hospital draws from multiple genres, including suspense, mystery, horror, science fiction, philosophical fiction, and experimental fiction, making it a challenging work to translate. As a translator, my job was to internalize the author’s voice and represent it as faithfully as possible in English. However, the author’s voice is challenging in many ways. There’s an amalgamation of technical medical and scientific terminology, and the protagonist, Yang Wei, is not a sympathetic character. And he has this detached sense of being lost and trying to find his way. Capturing his character and portraying him with all the biting humor and sarcasm in a way that does justice to the original was another challenge. The book is also filled with black humor, which is difficult to translate because humor doesn’t always translate well across cultures. It may have been one of the most challenging works I’ve had to confront. Another major challenge was that there were multiple versions of the novel. Han Song sent me four different versions of the manuscript, almost from a different multiverse, including an alternative version that was quite different from the published version. It was a very complex process of piecing together different parts of the manuscript. Han Song also played a hands-on role as an editor during the final stages of the translation, making radical shifts in terms of content to invert meaning. I had a sense of being Dr. Frankenstein, enthusiastic about assisting him to complete this experiment because he was making significant changes in the final stages of revision, which I had never witnessed an author do before, including radical shifts in terms of content. This gave me great insight into his creative process and what a brilliant and unorthodox writer he is.

  • What was the reception of the book in China?

The novel is part of a trilogy in China and has received mixed reactions from readers. Some popular websites like Douban have given it high ratings, but others find it too experimental and weird. Since its international release, some consider it a masterpiece, while others find it unreadable. Chinese readers seem to rate it higher, partly because they understand the humor and allegories that criticize prevalent cultural themes in China. Chinese readers when they see that, immediately get the joke, they immediately realize what he’s doing. However, foreign readers might miss these nuances if they’re unfamiliar with Chinese politics and society. This also explains the novel’s experimentalism, as strict censorship in China requires authors to adopt highly avant-garde and twisted forms to convey their critiques of society so that most censors who read this aren’t even going to figure out what he’s doing. In this way, the novel’s strangeness is a tactic to bypass censors and convey a radical message.

Michael Berry

Michael Berry, the director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA, is a renowned scholar in contemporary Chinese cultural studies. He is the author of several books on Chinese film and culture, including Speaking in Images, A History of Pain, and Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke. Berry has also lent his expertise as a film consultant and juror for various film festivals, such as the Golden Horse in Taiwan and the Fresh Wave in Hong Kong. Additionally, he has translated several novels, including To Live, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (with Susan Chan Egan), and Remains of Life.

  • The book was written in 2016. In what ways did the COVID-19 pandemic influence your reading and translation of Hospital?

The COVID-19 pandemic played a significant role because just before I translated ‘Hospital’, I had translated a book called ‘Wuhan Diary’ by Fang Fang, which chronicles the first COVID lockdown in Wuhan, China. That put me in a precarious political position as I found myself the target of a disinformation campaign and online attacks. As a translator, I felt compelled to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about COVID-19 and how we are navigating the pandemic. Against this backdrop, I began to translate ‘Hospital’, drawing on my personal experience as a patient. The book spoke very powerfully and presciently to the current reality of COVID-19. Han Song paints a picture of an entire city, society, country, and universe that is sick, and that it’s a massive hospital, and everyone is sick. This is the world we started to live in after 2020, where we were all quarantined, getting daily swabs, and our daily lives became a medical reality. Many of our friends and loved ones were sick, and we lost so many people. ‘Hospital’ felt like a vision of the future in this strange, twisted future that we had already arrived at. The book includes details about lab leaks, a purgatory-esque existence, VR relationships with disease, and the rise of AI, which we’ve seen all over the news today with Chat GPT and other new technologies. It felt like an important voice that needed to be heard so that readers could see what the future may hold. There were even strange coincidences, like one of the doctors in ‘Hospital’, in Chinese, was named Dr. Bauchi (which in Chinese sounds very similar to Dr. Fauci, ed). I couldn’t help but embellish that similarity between Baochi and Dr. Fauci, who became one of the most visible public health faces during the COVID-19 period. This uncanny similarity highlights an extra dimension of the book’s relationship with COVID-19, even though it was written before the pandemic existed.

  • The hospital is a place of absurdity, where paradoxical rules and real catch-22s are enforced alongside scientific breakthroughs and elements of superstition. Although the book is satirical and surreal, it delves deeply into the Chinese collective unconscious. In what ways does Han Song’s portrayal of the hospital reflect the situation in China? What symbolizes the hospital?

We must always remember that this is a work of fiction, an allegory. However, many of its themes are deeply rooted in truths about the human condition, Chinese culture, and the functioning of the Chinese bureaucratic mechanism, the CCP. Even the simple act of going to a hospital in China involves waiting in long lines, registering at a window, paying a fee, waiting in another line to see a doctor, and yet another to pick up medicine. The impersonal nature of this bureaucracy reduces patients to numbers rather than human beings. The book captures the cold, impersonal infrastructure of hospitals in China and other places around the world, where they function as part of a capitalist bureaucratic machine gone awry. When artificial intelligence is added to the mix, it becomes even more nightmarish. The hospital is an allegory for larger networks of power, bureaucracy, and exploitation. It portrays the suffering and helplessness that individuals often face in modern society. While readers can draw many parallels between COVID-19 and SARS, it can also be read as a larger indictment of how governments, bureaucracies, and capitalist systems function and their impact on individuals in contemporary times.

Han Song

Han Song is a prolific science fiction writer and journalist with Xinhua News Agency. He was born in Chongqing and obtained an MA in journalism from Wuhan University. Han started writing in 1982 and has since published a vast number of works, including novels, essays, and short stories. His most notable works include The Red Sea, Red Star over America, the Rails trilogy, and the Hospital trilogy, which has been regarded as a groundbreaking work in dystopian fiction. Han is a six-time winner of the Chinese Galaxy Award and a repeat recipient of the Xingyun Award. His short fiction has been featured in the collections Broken Stars, The Reincarnated Giant, and the anthology Exploring Dark Short Fiction: A Primer to Han Song.

  • The book also includes some nearly esoteric elements, such as the protagonist’s ascension and revelation of the secrets of the universe. What can we discern about Han Song’s philosophical or even religious worldview from his works?

There are elements of various religions here. If you read the trilogy, there’s a lot of Christianity, references to Jesus, and crucifixion, as well as many Buddhist and esoteric cult practices. Han Song doesn’t view any of them through a holy lens; he is highly critical and suspicious of organized religions. However, he employs them as a narrative tool because the characters are searching for meaning. For example, Yang Wei is searching for a cure to his illness and a reason for his suffering, which is a core tenet of Buddhism. How do you relieve yourself from it? In Buddhism, there are various paths that you can take towards Nirvana, towards reincarnation, towards the acknowledgment that all life is suffering and moving beyond that. Han Song is quite suspicious about all of this, and although he engages with it, nothing escapes unscathed. He criticizes not only religion but also Chinese cultural traditions, patriarchal condition, politics, gender relations, and family. Therefore, within the world of this hospital universe, no religion is sacred. However, we should always remember that there’s a difference between the world expressed in the novel and the author’s private thoughts on these topics.

  • The novella delves into China’s complex relationship with the West. By reading the book, what perception of the West emerges?

Han Song’s critique of the United States is both scathing and humorous, making it hard to discern when he’s criticizing the Rockefellers and the empire they built. The black humor employed in the portrayal of America suggests a self-criticism of the Chinese government’s depiction of the U.S. as an imperialist enemy. However, some critics have accused Han Song of being an apologist for the Chinese government, but I believe they are underestimating the sophistication of his work. There are even passages where the hospital can be directly replaced with the Chinese Communist Party, revealing what he’s trying to convey on some level. However, the same type of critical spirit exists in his portrayal of the United States in the book. One of his most famous novels is 2066: Red Star over America, which depicts a dystopian future where China is the world’s greatest superpower, America is a third-world ghetto in chaos, and Japan is underwater. Some Chinese nationalists view it as a utopian vision of China’s ascent and America’s decline, but there’s something more sophisticated at work here. Han Song is a critic, and if you look at how China is portrayed in the book, it’s highly problematic and critical. He’s known for his biting sarcasm and dark humor, and is considered the darkest of all China’s contemporary science fiction writers, different from Liu Cixin’s shin or Wang Jinkang. Han Song’s universe is a dark one, and he’s incredibly critical of almost everything that enters his fictional world.

Topic: Hospital Han Song

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