The next Chinese New Year will begin on February 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. 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 epicentre 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.
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. Neighbours 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.
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 too are victims.
“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.”
She is alert to rumour, “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. Still, the urgency of this account is impossible to deny.
This book is most scorching in Fang Fang’s calls to hold to account the leaders who downgraded and minimised the virus, wasting nearly three weeks and allowing it to seep into the world at large.
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.”
©2020 The New York Times News Service