SHANGHAI -- The Chinese version of the first part of James Joyce's 1939 novel Finnegan's Wake was published last December. Dai Congrong, professor of Chinese language and literature at Fudan University, Shanghai, spent eight years translating the notoriously difficulty work, and did not anticipate it would become a bestseller.
The book's first run of 8,000 sold out in a month. The publishing house hurried to print more and it remains a big seller now, far beyond any of Dai's expectations.
According to an April survey by the Chinese Academy of Press and Publication, Chinese people read less than five books per capita in the past year, a figure that trails woefully far behind major developed countries. The average American read seven; the French and Japanese, more than eight. Chinese people spend more time watching TV and using the Internet than reading.
During an international seminar on James Joyce at the 10th Shanghai Book Fair that started on Wednesday and will run until next Tuesday, this apparent contradiction came under the microscope.
Anne Fogarty, a professor of James Joyce studies from University College Dublin, said that even in Ireland, Finnegan's Wake was seldom read because it was so hard to understand.
Wang Weisong, editor-in-chief of Shanghai People's Publishing House, publisher of the new translation, said it was "a little inappropriate" to conclude that the Chinese were reading less and less.
"In cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Chongqing, serious literature has always had readers obsessed by reading and able to digest classics of western literature," Wang added.
Some critics attributed the popularity of Finnegan's Wake to the extravagant marketing campaign of its publishing house, which featured giant billboards in downtown areas in major cities across China.
But others argued that readers are drawn to the book because they want to challenge themselves by trying to understand one of the world's most difficult works of fiction for its experimental style and unique ideologue.
Joyce's novels have been held in high esteem by Chinese readers since they first became available. During the 1980s and 1990s, Western literature icons such as Joyce, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Marcel Proust were an inspiration to the young Chinese literati when their works were translated and introduced into China.
Over 1,000 readers waited in line to buy Joyce's Ulysses in Shanghai bookstores in 1995 and all the copies sold out on the spot, recalled Li Jingrui, founder of Yilin, China's flagship magazine on foreign literature.
Qian Jiaqing, a student from Xinan Mofan middle school in Shanghai, is probably the youngest fan of James Joyce.
"When my father brought that book home, I feel it gave me a reading experience I had never had before," said Qian, "Although I could not understand much of it, James Joyce's language and narration are much different from the works of Han Han, Guo Jingming."
Both born in the 1980s, Han Han and Guo Jingming are best-selling authors, especially popular among young Chinese readers.
"With the advancement of information exchange, travel and Internet, the Chinese people are becoming interested in more diverse aspects of the western world, even in those that the westerners themselves have not noticed," said an observer in the seminar.