Diary of a Naked Official, Melbourne: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2014, 240pp, $22.95
When I visited China last year the official I encountered most was a thin young man wearing an oversized hat and uniform. Often he would carry a small megaphone. Variations of this man appeared at the gates of Peking University, at the Forbidden City, at Andingmen subway station and at the China Tennis Open. One would step through his metal detectors, have one’s bags scanned and pass from one place into a delimited other. This is the public face of China’s government as the tourist encounters it. It functions as opaque in personal terms, but is transparently bureaucratic – ubiquitous, anonymous, uncharistmaic. The official of Ouyang Yu’s Diary of a Naked Official is somewhat different. Although he is anonymous, we get personal, intimate details about him. Told in first person diary form, the faceless functionary describes himself in a series of lurid and lyrical sexual encounters. It is a narrative told in almost daily episodes.
With the ubiquity of sex in Diary of a Naked Official, the reader becomes immune to the novel’s immediately shocking element. Soon the reader realises that the sex is not gratuitous – both in the sense of ‘uncalled for’ and ‘without pay’. Sex functions as a comment on economics and power and speaks to core issues of relations and desire. The second comment on gratuity holds because the official’s sex life is, except for a single encounter with ‘W’ (his wife), entirely with prostitutes. The sex is specific and unrestrained, a constant flow of paid event after paid event. These encounters focus on women’s bodies, though condoms are a recurring motif and semen is described in a number of memorable ways (‘rice like gruel’ for example). As Yu writes:
‘Her cunt was the prettiest I’ve ever seen, resembling the freshest salmon meat when sliced open, the hair around it even and young, like a cluster of dewy grass in the morning sun.’ (46)
This passage is typical in the sense that it conveys how the protagonist recounts his encounters, in how it objectifies the female body; yet it is exceptional for its descriptiveness and doubling up of metaphor. Diary of a Naked Official is not, though, a sexual awakening. This is not a Romantic bildungsroman of the official the tourist encounters while sightseeing, but a sordid diary of a middle-aged, middle-ranking corrupt bureaucrat who is in decline.
It is not only about sex, though. The reader gains a glimpse into his professional life too, particularly as the novel progresses. We gather the official is a government publisher with a wife and daughter, whom he sends to Australia, where his dirty money will be safe from the itchy hands of government. His profession is essentially prohibitive – it is a force that says no to manuscripts, no to poets, no to potential employees. This juxtaposition of ‘a force that says no’, to use Michel Foucault’s words, with a libidinal impulse that says a wholehearted yes to back licking, anal fingering, scrotum sniffing, hair creaming and less linear pleasures (51) is what gives the work its dialectical power. Censorship, the work-life of an official, meeting erotic desires and experiences brings into the light questions of freedom, gender and responsibility. As the narrator writes about China:
‘There are so many things not allowed into print. Nothing gay or lesbian. No graphic sex. No The Satanic Verses. No Mao: the Unknown Story, books forbidden to be translated, let alone published. Nothing offensive to ethnic tastes. Nothing against the positive image of Chinese people and China. Absolutely nothing about official corruption.’ (54)
This work then functions as a way of putting into print that which is not allowed. Diary of a Naked Official has graphic sex, contains numerous fragments of forbidden books, comments on minorities and corruption and gives an altogether complicated and unsentimental view of contemporary China.
This coalesces in the poetic fragments that are presented regularly throughout the text – submissions that the official refuses, reminiscences in shards, favourites remembered. Poetry here is the crystallisation of thought. It does the work of summing up, of relating, of making concrete the vague senses and possibilities one has in one’s mind or on the tip of one’s tongue. But poetry, and poets, are not seen in a particularly favourable light. As he writes:
‘… poetry anywhere in the world has become the least powerful of artistic expressions, fit only for an ever diminishing number of semi-idiots. And, in Beckett’s words, it is ‘the pastime of licensed apes’…. Poets, die your own death as you are a dead bore and nothing you ever do will achieve anything.’ (130-131)
This, though, is the opinion of an official who favours direct reference to past ‘greats’ and liberally peppers his diary with poetry. Hence, it is ironic and sincere at the same time, a double entendre typical of the work.
Diary of a Naked Official comes with footnotes and a bibliographic list so one can see where the quotes come from. It introduces the reader to various Chinese writers (Lianhen Chen, Gang Fang, Botong Li) as well as highlighting classics from the European canon (Marquis de Sade, John Donne, Vladimir Nabokov). This adds an element of pastiche to the text that complements the internal musings and confessions of the protagonist. The result of this is not only a self-obsessed confessional but a polyphonic sampling of an erudite literary diet.
Diary of a Naked Official can be read as a critique of contemporary China. It could be seen as a comment on the lascivious and avariciousness of government men as they exist today. This reading is buttressed by the framing device of the text – there is an introduction that claims the text has been found on a bus in Thornbury. It is, like Heart of Darkness, not the work of an author (Conrad/Yu) but of a narrator (Marlowe/the official). It also takes a voyeuristic pleasure in description; it dwells with a certain hetero-normative male gaze on the bodies of sex workers and, in this regard, reads less as a work of criticism than a spectacular recounting. It is held together by a propulsive, witty, absorbing voice and will make good reading for those with an interest in writing, poetry, publishing, censorship, corruption and China.