It’s a true story. As a writer (a novelist, to be more precise), when I say it’s a true story, it’s almost always not. But this time is different. It’s a really super true story. Why? Because it’s almost not a story.

It happened a few days ago. That morning there was a grand opening ceremony of a National Writers’ Congress. Of course, I wasn’t one of the delegates, I was just allowed to sit in on the ceremony. It would be just like a big Kafka show, I thought (and that’s why I wanted to go). I arrived too early (at 8 a.m., and the ceremony began at 10 a.m.), and I was starving to death (I hadn’t had breakfast). So I decided to look for some place to eat something – anything – and that wasn’t easy. To the north was Tiananmen Square, to the east was the Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall, and to the west was the Great Hall of the People, where the ceremony would be held. So my only choice was south. I went south. I passed several soldiers, with their eyes steadily fixed on the same spots just like some wax statues. Then I passed an old, high, western-style building, whose windows were broken, like a gothic haunted house. Then a beautiful public convenience, like a temple. Nothing to eat. I decided to go on. I crossed by the subway. In the subway I was quite taken aback by what I saw. Three monstrous beggars – maybe demented, maybe deformed, maybe just dirty, I couldn’t be sure – lying on the ground, covered with rubbishy quilts (obviously, they slept there in the night). I had no choice but to pass them, quickly, I must say. And at last, when I returned to the surface of the earth, I saw the KFC across the street. I had a great breakfast at KFC. These were just like a series of symbols, I told myself. Anyway, I felt a little happy (for the breakfast), a little sad (for the beggars) and a little absurd (for the symbols). Then the ceremony, the long and boring and empty speeches. When it was over, I felt partly happy (for was finally over), partly sad (it’s hard to say why) and partly absurd (for all these). After that I didn’t go back home at once, I just wanted to take a walk and breathe some cold (though dirty) winter air. I went to a bookshop and a flea market, where I bought a book about landscape painting in ancient China and some small lovely silvery goblets, of course, all very cheap (and beautiful). On my way home, sitting in the jam-packed metro, I felt satisfied, anyway. I felt satisfied because I felt solitary. I treasure this solitude. It’s my holy solitude. Maybe now there is nothing holy in modern China – except Money. But at least to me, Solitude is holy. It means that in spite of everything else, I still can do something I want to do, such as reading. I’m always a keen reader of western literature. I love Raymond Carver, Paul Auster, Geoff Dyer, Alice Munro and many others. My favourite magazines on this planet are The New Yorker, Harper’s (an American friend ordered these two magazines’ digital subscriptions for me as a gift), and, Granta (I met with the editor John Freeman, in Beijing, just two days before the Congress, and we talked about books so happily – like two killers talking about guns – that he also gave me a digital subscription, also as a gift). I always think, either as a reader or as a writer, one person – anyone – can struggle against this filthy world by entering into a world of literature. It’s not naivety. It’s not escape either. It’s great. It’s great because it’s so simple, so beautiful, and – almost – no one can prevent you, even in China.

It was a long way to home, so I took out a Pocket Penguin, Anton Chekhov’s The Kiss, from my bag and began to read.


Photograph © Ming1967

The Sun in a Box
Jon McGregor | Podcast