Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters....
From Wú Jìngzǐ's Rúlínwàishǐ to Balzac's Les Employés, from Kafka's The Trial (above left) to Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide, bureaucrats traditionally have fared rather badly in novels. Faceless ... often nameless ... usually mediocre.
China's recent spate of bestselling novels about bureaucrats seems unlikely to improve the situation. These novels, known in China as officialdom novels, frequently portray Chinese bureaucrats as breeding hub[s] of corruption, feeding readers' curiosity about how party elites snatch wealth by underhand[ed] means. One popular author of such novels, Wang Xiaofang, has gone so far as to suggest that
[t]he lives of civil servants ... are like those living in a gigantic castle, following prescribed rules; all citizens are equal under the law -- but not everybody is a citizen.
The Orwellian tinge of some of these novels notwithstanding, they are enormously popular in the world's most populous nation. One hundred and eighteen (118) such novels were published in 2008. That number was easily surpassed within the first three months of 2009. Wang's own acclaimed novel, The Civil Servant's Notebook, is being translated into English by Penguin China.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most enthusiastic readers of Chinese officialdom novels appear to be ... Chinese bureaucrats. According to a recent article in the Shenzen Daily, many Chinese bureaucrats use these novels as guides to bureaucratic behavior that may actually enhance their possibilities of promotion.
It will be interesting to see how many of these titles (in addition to Wang's) get translated into Western languages. It will be even more interesting to see how well such novels resonate with Western readers. Political fiction in the United States, for example, usually focuses on the machinations of top-level types like Senators, Supreme Court Justices or the President. Are readers here (much less book collectors) really ready for The Diary of the Assistant Deputy Under-Secretary for a Department You Didn't Know Existed?
Still, it is a ground-floor book collecting opportunity ... if you read Mandarin.