The arrival of a great contemporary novelist into historic Manchester was a quiet one. Clad in a dark, unbranded jacket and slacks that gave no hint of his literary stature, he stepped into the Portico Library, his unassuming figure diminished under its imposing canopy of books. It would have been impossible to guess that this person belonged to the walls of greats. His reception was humble: it seemed that no more than seventy were gathered in this small pantheon, which was alive with hushed curiosity.
On the evening of October 10 2023, Liu Zhenyun, the renowned Chinese author and screenwriter, sat down to discuss his latest novel, One Day Three Autumns. The bilingual event, hosted by the Manchester China Institute and moderated by its director, Dr. Peter Gries, also featured Chinese author Liang Hong and his new book, The Sacred Clan. This occasion was made possible by the Sinoist Books publishing group, which brings “the best of Chinese fiction to English-speaking readers.”
Although Liu is largely unknown in the West, his achievements have global resonance. In 2018, he was awarded France’s Knight of the Ordre des Arts des Lettres “for his contribution to world literature.” His books and screenplays were recognised at the Toronto International Film Festival and Rome Festival, and many more in Asia. Titles like I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016) and Someone to Talk To (2018) are just a few selections from his repertoire.
Yet, amidst his illustrious biography, Liu’s true essence emerges in person, where he becomes a captivating blend of wit and humour. His thoughtfully crafted responses, steeped in references to ancient authors like Confucius and Cao Xueqin, were a testament to his intellect. And when the discussion turned to his comedy-infused novel, One Day Three Autumns, his playful exchange with audience members generated a poetically satisfying atmosphere.
When asked why so many of his books have been adapted into film, Liu smartly replied, “The answer is quite simple. It’s because I write very well.” It is this awe-inspiring character, unveiled in person, that piques one’s curiosity about his newest novel.
In One Day Three Autumns, a spirit named Hua Erniang plagues the dreams of innocent townspeople, claiming the lives of those who fail to amuse him. In the face of such troubles, protagonist Mingliang leaves his home to traverse central China, hoping to find his luck elsewhere. Instead, he encounters all sorts of haunted personalities, each unable to escape their past. Liu’s explanation of a chapter in which an elderly stray dog leaves its owner to die in an indescript place is a fitting overview of the novel’s overarching themes.
“There are two kinds of dogs,” Liu explained. “The kind that you raise since birth will willingly die at home. But the stray dog will not. He must die where he came from.” One Day Three Autumns is self-described as a tale of human destiny. “No matter how many times you try to start afresh, you can only run so far from a broken home,” the book’s summary states. “Some wounds take more than a lifetime to heal, but in the meantime, a few wisecracks tucked into the back pocket won’t hurt.”