Salomon Kroonenberg, Dutch writer
Bami is north and nasi is south
I have so far never been to a book fair. Nor do I know what to imagine being at one is like. Am I - as in Spui in Amsterdam or along the Seine in Paris - to stand at a small book stand, trying to fob my books off on disinterested passers-by? Am I - in every conceivable language of the world - to try and convince smooth literary agents of the quality of my scribblings? Am I allowed to saunter past the stands of other writers and leaf through what is lying there, while the salesman and I both know that I can impossibly gain an impression of what is in the books by doing so? What catches my eye, then - the cover? In that case, I would buy a French Houellebecq but never the Dutch translation, for its cover hurts your eyes. And if the female writer on the back cover is distinctly dishy, you will buy that book, despite your ominous misgivings that you have once again landed up with lachrymose chicklit.
With a friendly smile and full of mutual incomprehension we took leave of each other.
With Chinese books, things are even more difficult, since I can’t read Chinese. Prior to my first visit to China sixteen years ago, because of my work as a geologist, I did actually attend a Chinese course given by the sinologist Inez Kretschmar, but I have never got any further than haggling with the chauffeur about a taxi fare. It did, admittedly, rid myself of the prejudice that Chinese is an inaccessible language. In actual fact, the grammar is extremely simple, and anyone should be able to master the language just like that, were it not for two important obstacles: the character writing and the intonation.
As a layman, you think to yourself: Why don’t they simply use the Latin alphabet? But then you discover that there are actually only 411 word forms in Mandarin Chinese. Each of them acquire different means via the different intonations, but four times 411 is even so only 1,644 - far too few to construct a whole language from. The word form shì, with falling intonation, has around eighty different meanings, including ‘stone’ and ‘ten’. The Latin alphabet is no help to you whatsoever in such a case. No wonder, then, that you look for something else to distinguish between those words: which is why each of the meanings has its own character. The Vietnamese have tried the Latin alphabet. I don’t know any Vietnamese either, but when you see how many dots, dashes and various other mouse droppings they have to put over and under their letters in order to represent their words in the Latin alphabet, you begin to understand the Chinese better. In fact, the progression was of course the opposite: initially there were the characters, and afterwards the word forms got so worn that they increasingly came to resemble each other.
Just how important those characters are I discovered when, walking on the Hammer Mountain near the temple city of Chengde, I met a man and his daughter and tried to ask him a question. Naturally, he did not understand me, and to find out which word I meant he quickly drew a character in his left palm with his right forefinger. That did not help me one bit of course, and with a friendly smile and full of mutual incomprehension we took leave of each other.
What I have learnt from this more than anything else is that there are various ways of doing things well. For us, the Latin alphabet is the best solution, but for Chinese it is the characters and intonations. A nuisance for a person like me with a much better verbal than visual memory, and, more than anything else, frustrating since from my childhood I have always wanted to read all signs, notices and signboards, and was unable to do so in China. And frustrating at a book fair where there are sure to be many English signs hanging around, but probably even more Chinese ones all of which I will want to be able to read, even though all they say is ‘non-fiction on the second floor’ or ‘no smoking’. And highly promising book covers with wonderful female writers that will never reveal their secrets.
Also when it comes to eating, I have learnt that there are various ways of doing things well. Initially, I used to ask myself why you never get a whole steak served on your plate. Later, I came to understand that better: If you have already been eating with chopsticks for five thousand years, you have to cut a steak into thin strips first to be able to eat it. Food in China has also changed my map of the world. Before I had been there, bami and nasi were both oriental - products of oriental cuisine that was not even specifically Chinese. Even the words bami and nasi are not Chinese but Indonesian. But when during my first visit to China in Xinjiang I was always served bami and seldom rice, I was given the explanation. Bami is made from wheat, and that mainly grows in the temperature climates of the north. Nasi is rice, and that mainly grows in the subtropical south. Bami has become north and nasi has become south. With that as my luggage, I will now set out for the book fair.