In 2014, Doubleday published Susan Barker’s third novel The Incarnations. Set in contemporary Beijing but spanning 1000 years of Chinese history, it’s an inventive, intelligent, engrossing novel. It went on to win a Jerwood Fiction Prize in 2015 and to garner rave reviews in the broadsheets both in the UK and the USA.
On the second day of Manchester Literature Festival 2016, I’m in the International Anthony Burgess Centre to see a sold out talk by Barker about her writing of the novel. She begins by telling us that it’s about the six lives of the taxi driver Wang Jun, one in Beijing in 2008, where he’s a taxi driver and five across the Tang Dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty, the Opium War and the Cultural Revolution.
Barker says she had two strategies when researching the novel. The first was for the historical sections which were largely text based, although she did visit sites of historical interest too. The second, for the contemporary sections, in which she wanted to show the rapid societal and economic changes that had taken place in Beijing, she took an artists’ residency in the city in 2007 and ended up staying for five years.
While she lived in the city, the idea of the narrator’s occupation came from a conversation Barker had with some taxi drivers on a cigarette break in December 2007. She talked to them, practising her ‘bad Chinese’ and decided that a taxi driver would give the reader ‘a panoramic view of the city’ and allow Beijing to have a central presence in the novel.
She lived in a flat that had previously belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture and housed some of its workers. This is the flat in which Wang lives during the novel. As Barker moved to Beijing as the city was gearing up for the Olympics, the atmosphere at the time ‘swept its way into the book’. This atmosphere took several forms: renovation, celebration and surveillance. She tells us of building supervisors carrying out checks on people’s papers and of the government cleaning the streets of the homeless and the mentally ill whom they detained for the duration of the Olympics.
Barker began by reading books that gave broad overviews of Chinese history and then carried out further research into those most interesting to her. She wasn’t sure how she was going to structure the novel until she came up with the idea of reincarnation and the epistolian nature of the book. This meant that the structure would link past to present; Barker also liked the idea of human nature repeating/history reoccurring and this became one of the central themes.
We’re then treated to a bit of a history lesson as Barker takes us through the settings of the five letters in the novel. The first is set in the Tang Dynasty which, she says, was comparatively open and cosmopolitan compared to some of periods of Chinese rule. This period produced some of Barker’s favourite cultural highlights. The story written with this period as the backdrop is during the rule of Tang Taizong, the 2nd Emperor of the dynasty. He was entertained by courtesans who would sing, dance, recite poetry and be witty conversationalists. Only eunuchs were permitted to serve the emperor to ensure purity of the imperial lineage. Barker was interested in the psychological effects of castration: some men found it purifying, others distressing, so she explored this in the story set in this period.
The second is the Jin Dynasty, 1215, during the invasion of Genghis Khan into north China. The Siege of Zhangdu was his most ambitious. 70,000 horseback warriors surrounded the city until one million inhabitants began to starve and turned to cannibalism. When the city fell, the Mongols went through systematically and raised it to the ground. The only people who survived were people with skills. The story told in The Incarnations is about two people who lie that they have skills but, Barker tells us that Genghis Khan is ‘very much the beating heart of the story’. She was interested in what it was like to be a powerless individual swept up by this historical force.
Emperor Jiajing, the most sadistic of the Ming Dynasty – ‘Which is quite impressive!’ – is the ruler during the time in which the third story takes place. Jiajing was mostly interested in his own mortality. He had a harem of 200 concubines and it was rumoured he’d tortured and murdered some of them. In October 1542, sixteen concubines plotted to kill him. ‘In a sense they were the most powerful women in China’, Barker says, but they were also prisoners who took their fate into their own hands. The story follows the women as they carry out their plot.
The fourth story takes place in Canton, the city now known as Guangzhou, during the Opium Wars. Barker includes the Tankas, a group who live on junks and have their own subculture and the British. She explores the psychological climate: the Chinese and British attitudes to each other. There were deeply ingrained racial prejudices that were very difficult to overcome, she says.
The Anti-Capitalist School for Revolutionary Girls in the People’s Republic of China is the setting for the fifth story. Barker was interested in class at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and the way in which it began with education with schools being given the freedom to persecute teachers. She read Colin Febron’s Behind the Wall which was written in the 1980s not long after the Cultural Revolution ended. In it he describes the revolution as ‘The collective madness as of an entire nation’. Barker thinks this assessment is harsh but she is interested in how loyalty to Mao Zedong overrode rationality. She’s interested in what it was like to live in a totalitarian society so the story takes place from the interior view of someone who’s being brainwashed.
The themes of the novel are power and power struggles. This is both between individuals in their relationships and between the state – the minority who rule – and the people – the majority who are subjugated. Barker’s interested in how these reoccurs generation after generation. States of peace and stability are always precarious, she says. The contemporary section of the book is set during the most stable time but Wang Jun is disengaged and passive. He’s not interested in wealth and gaining status through it. Instead he’s seduced by the letters left in his taxi and the idea of someone loving him so passionately. The relationship between the taxi driver and the anonymous letter writer is ‘the final power struggle of the book’.