By Paul French
A boring Englishman leaves home one morning to post a letter while his wife runs the vacuum cleaner over the upstairs carpets. He doesn’t come back. Instead he walks from one end of England to the other. Not, one would think, an immediately attractive scenario for a novel that has been read by millions of Chinese readers in the PRC and Taiwan and topped the book charts in both countries. Yet it has. Rachel Joyce’s debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, got rave reviews in the UK when it was first published in 2012, became a bestseller, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Booker. Fine, but what’s got Chinese readers so captivated about boring English everyman Harold Fry?
Sometimes a story resonates. Let’s put aside the classics of the Western canon (a new Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake recently caused a Joycean stir) and “hip” books that do well in China, such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Sometimes foreign books have themes that just echo as they hit a nerve in the Chinese consciousness in some way. The last book to really do the same thing was Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. There’s no doubt that Dublin author Tóibín’s sparse prose is exceptional writing, but what made it a hit in China were its themes: “love, loss and one woman’s terrible choice between duty and personal freedom,” according to the publishers blurb. In Brooklyn, Eilis Lacey, lacking opportunity in 1950s rural Ireland, emigrates to New York. It’s a wrench but Eilis knows she must go, leaving behind her family and her home for the first time. In New York she is homesick and initially disoriented, but adapts, and then finds returning home to her insular Irish village problematic. Of course millions of young Chinese women have internally migrated from tight knit, close villages across China to anonymous cities and factory towns far from their birthplaces over the last three decades. They’ve faced many of the same problems as Eilis – adaptation, loneliness, the problem of returning home once the city has changed you.
But what is it about Harold Fry that appeals to readers in Beijing and Taipei? Chinese readers have several different answers and none involve anything as trite as the resonance of a long march to Chinese readers. Rather, many identify with Harold’s loneliness – retired with a wife who is a mild nag and obsessed with household cleanliness. He has dropped out of a fast changing society around him, has few friends, few pastimes. But most readers seem to take heart with Harold’s decisiveness. That he actually, finally makes a decision (albeit a rather ludicrous one to walk from Devon to Northumberland; a walk he believes will cure an old friend of cancer) has been described as rejuvenating by many Chinese readers; just as it is to Harold. Once he has committed to the 87-day trek (for which he is singularly ill-prepared) the world changes for him – he sees the riot of colour in the hedgerows, he tastes the tanginess of the cheese in his pub sandwich. He talks to people – tells his story and listens to them and their bizarre pasts, fetishes and foibles. Sometimes it is only by taking the most decisive of acts that we are forced to interact with others. Harold’s bizarre decision is secondary to the fact that he has made a choice to fill his own personal spiritual void, broken out of his own social isolation and reconnected with the wide world out there.
Higher brow readers might find The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry a little sentimental and Harold himself a little pious. However, Chinese readers, who often like a dose of sentimentality, seem to find something of the supposed modesty and selflessness of a Lei Feng in this teetotal former brewery manager from sleepy Devon. It’s hard to know which age group have been warming to Harold Fry in the Chinese world but I like to think that many readers are of an older generation, retired, somewhat bemused by the fast changing society around them and perhaps looking to fill their own spiritual void with a little adventure, just like Harold.