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Golden River (Extract)

By Lu Min, translated by Nicky Harman and Jack Hargreaves (forthcoming)

Read in Chinese here

1: Notebooks with red leather covers


It was February, still cold, and Xie’s glasses fogged up as soon as he went through the door. When the fog cleared, he saw Mr Have-It-All was crying. The setting sun shone in, lighting up the furniture, the floor, and Mr Have-It-All’s twisted body.  The old man looked grey; only the tear tracks on his cheeks shone bright.

Xie didn’t expect this to take long, it rarely did. He sat down on Mr Have-It-All’s right side – anyone who was paralysed preferred to be seen from their good side – glancing at him quietly, a little puzzled but also half-admiring. Mostly, he focused on his red-covered notebook.

Mr Have-It-All’s stroke had been brutal but not fatal. Still, he acted as if he’d had the final call and was throwing himself into the performance of dying. These days, his face streamed with tears. It was all very odd. This, after all, was Mr Have-It-All, infamous tyrant of the business world, a killer force, a speeding arrow, a cutting wind. The new soft, mushy Mr Have-It-All was interesting, Xie mused. He should probably start with that, shouldn’t he? He reminded himself of the notebook number. Number 150, that was it. Yes, if he could get to the root of the frailty that was producing Mr Have-It-All’s tears (Resources #150), it should take precedence over the tough side of his character.

But he needed to start by explaining Mr Have-It-All’s name. Strictly speaking, he was Mr Mu, given name, Youheng. But he always made everyone call him ‘Mr Have-It-All’. You see, the character ‘you’ meant ‘have’, so he’d made it into his name, Mr Have-It-All, so he could have it all. Whenever he signed a contract, he always made the character ‘you’ in the middle of his name, much bigger than the two characters, ‘mu’ and ‘heng’ on either side. 穆 有 . The ‘you’ looked like the tower of a cable-stayed bridge. That was him all over, greedy to have it all. In his notebook Resources #8, Xie had jotted down a number of jokes about Mr Have-It-All’s name.

As Xie was mulling all this over, Mr Have-It-All abruptly stopped crying and jerked his chin towards the coffee table. His tongue was coated in spittle and he didn’t have his false teeth in, so the sounds he was trying to make came out garbled. He just about managed, ‘I’ll pay for it.’ Xie figured that he was referring, not to the half-bowl of gloopy lotus root starch soup with a thick drinking straw stuck in it, but a booklet about cloning pets, also on the table. It had been sent to him by some bio-company in an attempt to lure him into parting with his money. Mr Have-It-All’s golden retriever, Pinecone, was fifteen and a half years old, almost as old as his owner. He had to be held up when he went out to pee, and ‘walkies’ consisted of pulling him along in a little cart.

Mr Have-It-All had become quite a spendthrift. Mr Xie recalled the Ukrainian Injections, a big thing last year amongst Mr Have-It-All’s cronies who, now they were retired, had all turned their attention to prolonging their lives.

Take the Yan brothers. Their thing was Six-Path Reincarnation; they had gone off to earn merit by visiting famous Buddhist temples all over China and Southeast Asia, in the hopes of smoothing life’s path for subsequent generations of their family. Then there was scrawny Mr Ouyang and his equally skinny missus, who believed in meditation. They spent half of each year on retreat in Nepal, aloof from worldly affairs, and the other half exploring different ways of practicing Buddhism and keeping healthy, eating medicinal herbs instead of green vegetables, listening to insects and birds instead of talking to their fellow humans, standing on their heads, walking backwards and sleeping in sitting meditation pose. To these practices they added the most advanced medical treatments that Singapore or Germany could provide, including pioneering ways of tackling different types of cancer. Their favourite topics included things like euthanasia, the cryogenic freezing of brain cells, organ transplants and Russia's 2045 Avatar Immortality Plan. Mr Lei from Kunshan had a particular interest in the latter. He was one of the first generation to invest in the new Development Zones, starting out by going into business making steel wire with some Taiwanese. For him, new technologies were key. Once, he came especially to visit Mr Have-It-All so he could impress him with a very ‘international’ piece of news: according to the British press, an Italian neurologist had just announced in Vienna that in Harbin, Chinese surgeons had performed a head transplant. ‘Biologists fight for the Nobel Prize every year, with foreign billionaires watching their every move,’ he exclaimed. ‘And now we can bask in their glory too!’ 

Mr Lei was keen to get into Ukrainian Injections, and he tried to persuade Mr Have-It-All to go with him to Ukraine. The Ukrainians had apparently come up with a very powerful embryonic stem cell injection. One injection (at 600,000 RMB a pop) could take ten years off your age. If they went on holiday there, they could slip in an injection at the same time. Mr Have-It-All nodded, ‘Excellent. If one jab’s worth ten years, you’ll all need several. Why not go right back into your mother’s belly while you’re at it? All I want is for God to grant me a speedy death.’

God seemed to have got the message, and promptly delivered the stroke. The left side of You’s face froze, the corner of his mouth turned downwards, and then came the drooling. The 600,000 he’d saved were no use to him now. He should have put his faith in science, sighed the old guys who dropped by to visit him, shaking their white or bald heads in pity as they left the room.

Mr Have-It-All spoke. ‘This way, when I’ve gone, Pinecone will be company for Cang. It’s three hundred and eighty thousand, worth every cent.’ Whenever he said numbers, his words suddenly sounded clearer. ‘Never mind me, I’d rather prolong my dog's life – for that daft son of mine, Mu Cang.’ Just another charming quote that would soon be doing the rounds. Xie had jotted down many similar ones in his red-covered notebooks.

And word did travel quickly. Once, Mr Have-It-All had arranged to go to the hospital to visit an old mate of his who was hard up. He grabbed some bundles of banknotes and stuffed them into his bag. This was his chance to be generous. But in the hospital, he got the floor wrong and ended up in a ward with the same number, two floors above. Not seeing the patient he was looking for, he struck up a conversation with another visitor. The two got on like a house on fire, and, forgetting about his old friend, he allowed himself to be whisked away to see ‘an antique’. ‘Old jade!’ he exclaimed as he spotted it. 

‘You have a good eye, Sir, this is Liangzhu jade!’ (Resources # 78),’ the other said. ‘But I’m sorry, it’s a family treasure, I can’t part with a thing like that!’ 

Mr Have-It-All laughed: ‘Of course you can!’ He emptied the bundles of notes out of his bag. ‘This is my down payment. Name your price, I won’t haggle.’ And he picked up the jade. After much discussion, they settled on a hefty price. Mr Have-It-All was very proud of himself. He hadn’t lost his touch. No one but him could go on a hospital visit and end up buying a priceless antique.

Mr Have-It-All had an obsession with collecting antiques. You had to be a collector if you were in business, once you reached a certain level. Collectables ranged from old jade, rosewood, amber, snuff bottles and Buddhist statues, to coral and curiously-shaped rocks from the Lao River. Mr Have-It-All spread his net wide. It all depended on who he’d been doing business with at the time. He was eager to learn, and whenever someone brought him something and told him about its origins, he would nod solemnly, and sigh, ‘Such a rarity and so well preserved – and in my hands too! No wonder I was drawn to it as soon as I spotted it.’ And he would buy it. Whenever Xie turned up at the house to find a ‘collector friend’ with Mr Have-It-All, he could tell straightaway that Mr Have-It-All was being diddled, even though he was no collector himself and was only listening with half an ear. He would point out the flaws, but Mr Have-It-All was nothing if not pig-headed. He would stare for a long time at a carved piece said to be from Chaozhou and made of Laos rosewood, and conclude, ‘A marvellous piece of openwork, the beads on the inner layer spin around so smoothly. I know a good deal when I see one.’ Soon, as word got out of his gullibility, he had fraudsters flocking to his door and hanging around waiting for him. Different folks came and went and laid out their wares for him, but the result was always the same. 

One of these objets was an amethyst screen which had replaced the wall facing Xie now (Resources #58). Mr Have-It-All had gone to Beijing to host a dinner, and before he had eaten more than a bite or two, the guest got a phone call. ‘You’re in luck!’ he exclaimed to his host. ‘There’s a Fengshui master giving some of his secret teachings in a house near here. Come on, I’m taking you!’ They got there in time to listen to the last half. That half was enough to soften up Mr Have-It-All and when he got home the next day, he knocked down a partition wall on the east side of the living room, and brought in the piece of amethyst. It was half the height of the original wall and came from the East China Sea. The amethyst had its own serial number and name, ‘Purple Gold’ and, what's more, had been blessed by a Tibetan guru on the orders of the Fengshui master. To provide a setting for this gigantic symbol of compassion, Mr Have-It-All (guided by his Beijing friend) installed a statue of the Venerable Ananda, and arranged sacred objects before it. The effect was something like a Buddhist shrine. 

Xie always bowed when entering and leaving the door, trying his best to focus mindfully on the statue’s visage, which was ‘round like a full moon in autumn, with eyes like a green lotus flower’. However, his head churned with figures – the amount of money flowing in and out on a daily basis, and he was painfully aware of his lack of reverence.  He was also possibly distracted by knowing that just behind the Ananda statue, there was a hidden door to a dimly-lit room where two safes, one large and one small, stood side by side.

Only Mr Have-It-All had an arrangement like this. You would expect a man like him would keep his valuables – documents, certificates, jewellery – in an earthquake- and bomb-proof strongbox in the basement of a bank. ‘If the Third World War breaks out or there’s another major earthquake, we can guarantee...’ the bank manager tried to persuade him on one of his frequent visits, but Mr Have-It-All waved him away with a smile. ‘If World War III breaks out, we may all be blown to bits. Why are we bothering about little things like these?’ And he carried on guarding these two cumbersome safes like a county credit union cashier (Resources #35). Xie didn't know what was in the little one. But his job was nonetheless important: he had to make trips to the bank, withdraw a pile of cash, and stash it in the big safe, like topping up a storage jar with rice. Mr Have-It-All insisted that it should always be kept full, so that he never ran short of cash.

‘Is there anything else to do apart from arranging to clone Pinecone?’ Xie asked, his bottom rising from the chair in preparation for leaving, but Mr Have-It-All suddenly pulled himself upright. After his stroke had messed up his speech, he had found workarounds to enable him to communicate. Now, he jerked his chin at something. His throat trembled, and his toothless cheeks bulged. He shut his eyes tight. Coughed twice. Lifted his right shoulder.

Xie pretended not to have seen. His mind was on his red notebook, and what he was going to scribble down when he got home: cloning Pinecone the dog (Resources #151). It must be the same bio-company as the one that had been targeting these rich old guys. For a while, it had promoted a genome sequencing and gene preservation package service, new on the market, at a six-digit fee. What was that all about? Well, the rewards it offered were immense. It could help cure cancer, get you into the human gene pool, and protect future children and grandchildren from disease! The saleswoman went on in hushed tones, ‘You see, when an important family member dies, our representatives will visit and identify any illegitimate children and grandchildren, for several generations. They can stop you getting scammed.’ This touched a raw nerve for Mr Have-It-All. He had two sons. Mu Cang had Aspergers Syndrome and was unmarried. He would not give him grandchildren. And he had fallen out with his second son, who called himself a confirmed Dinkie, Dual Income No Kids. It was unfortunate but the family line was likely to die out. It was really too bad. Mr Have-It-All also had a goddaughter whom he took on when she was five years old, but rumours were rife that she was his illegitimate biological daughter, or perhaps his young lover. Whichever way you looked at it, the saleswoman talked too much, and he blew her off. However, the company persevered, and finally landed a deal to clone old Pinecone.

‘Don’t worry about the cost, if they do it now, they can maybe offer you a reduction on the 380,000,’ Xie told him. ‘I know your money was hard-earned.’ 



‘Stop. Can’t you see I’m exhausted? I’ve got tears running down my cheeks, I look like a blind bear. Don’t tell me my money was hard-earned!’ I told him. The way he talks always makes him sound so loyal to me. It’s ridiculous, there’s not a damn soul in this world who’s really loyal to me. They’ve all got their knives out, just looking to see where they can stick them in, slice off a few pieces of my flesh and drink a few mouthfuls of my blood. It’s been going on for years, anyone can see that. But no matter, the more they flash their knives, the more exciting it is. It gets my fighting spirit up. I like a bit of blood and gore.’

Sometimes I deliberately go looking for the knives. I pretend I’m fooled, and splash a bit of money around to help those thieving bastards out. I really enjoy seeing how they look at me then: their eyes are full of pity, they just can’t hide it. They’re thinking, that tough old fox, money was his life, but he’s worse off now than the old woman hunkered down on the curb selling green onions. That’s OK by me, I don’t mind them treating me like an old fool, a rich old fool, a dying rich old fool. So if people still have their knives out for me, bring’em on! Let them stick me in my useless stinking 70-year-old belly. I can take it. The more it hurts, the happier I’ll be.

Maybe young Xie didn’t bring a knife with him, or he hid it too well. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s stubborn with it. He’s like a carpenter, making minute calculations for everything, refusing to do a sloppy job. That guy can certainly write. To start with, he never did anything but write, his pen was his sword, and he was always picking me up on the tiniest things.

It was twenty years ago, when I only had one small business. When I first saw Xie, I’d put money into a small packaging factory in the county town. The place was very poor, half of the kids weren’t in school. They wandered around the streets, getting into fights in winter, and jumping into ponds in summer and getting themselves drowned. So I gave them work in the factory, piece work it was. Every day they took home a bit of cash to go towards their dinner, and that kept the parents happy too.

That reduced our labour costs by 30% to 40%. Which was great.

It was too bad there was one kid who was messing around and did himself an injury – he lost the sight in one eye. In fact, the work wasn’t hard, but he was clumsy, he wasn’t paying attention. And that’s where Xie came in: he was like a dog with a bone, he wouldn't let it go. He even dropped by my office to speak to me about it, and treated me to a lecture full of big words and fancy sentences.

It's not about you, you’re just a small employer, he told me, nor about the packaging factory, or child labour, or losing a bit of money. It's about poverty, about life, about the present and the future, about values ​​and common sense, Understand? Have you heard of the Pulitzer Prize? This is Pulitzer stuff, for sure.

I refused to listen to him. I asked someone to check into his background. He was just a punk of thirty or so, no family behind him, who lived off the kind of gritty journalism he wrote. That was the part he played among his fellow hacks. There was a trio with different monikers: Hu of the North, Xie of the South, and Zhang of the Centre. He was Xie of the South. So you’re hard, I thought, but are you hard enough to earn money? In the end, it wasn't me, it was him, Xie, who got his comeuppance. He was pretty much drummed out, and no newspaper office was brave enough to give him work.

But I had nothing against the lad, even his enthusiasm for that Pulitzer Prize, or whatever it’s called. I didn’t want him to starve to death on the streets. So I played nice, and went to see him, asked if he would be good enough to take on public relations for my companies. He had to be my fire-fighter, thief-catcher and reporter-bouncer, I needed his sharp pen, he’d be perfect for the job. I made sure he’d be treated with the greatest respect – everyone from my vice presidents, middle managers and employees, down to the children and Aunt Xiao – had to call him Mr Xie, or the Prof. That effectively boosted him to a ministerial position in my little kingdom, no small honour. Then there was the substantial salary I offered him. I don't know what it was in particular that clinched it but the upshot was that this kicking, biting colt was broken in and finally accepted a saddle and bridle. He was ours.

Straightaway, I knew I’d got it right.  He became my all-round, right-hand man, and did a lot of the secretarial work too. I didn’t ask him to take bullets for me, but he often shielded me from fisticuffs, and other things obviously, like women, and drinks and dinners. He understood the ways of the world and he was quick-witted. Anything personal, like family affairs, however embarrassing or trivial, I left them to him to sort out. That made him my butler too. He was worth every cent.

But he always had his knife ready too, and that’s something I still think about.

A few years ago, I wanted to send him south to look for someone and I called him in to have a drink with me first. It was a very cold day, and we drank hot ginger-flavoured rice wine, twelve-year-old Huadiao. It went down a treat. I made it quite clear to him that this business was not totally above board and should be kept absolutely confidential, and that I trusted him. 

He said to me that when he’d first come to work for me, he’d been laughed at by his former colleagues, and his own wife too. She told him he was spineless, but she knew they had to put by enough money to send their son abroad, and they couldn’t do that by sitting around at home. So he had to do it even though he resented it. I could see the sweat on his face and his glasses sliding down his nose. He took two more two sips, said a bit more. Another sip. It wasn't long before I found out that I’d actually got him out of a mess. In just ten years, the media industry had become a circus. Storms were blowing up all over the place. You were lucky if you didn't drown. Creating news became a production line and it was harder and harder on the journalists. You had to bend over backwards to do it. What production line? I asked, not understanding. He dipped the tip of his chopstick in wine and drew letters on the table, muttering in English, ‘IT’. ‘Don’t these letters look like a factory production line to you?’ He asked. As soon as the IT factory opened, everyone all over the world had a computer and a mobile phone. They didn’t rely on newspapers anymore, and print volumes and revenue from newspaper advertisements plummeted. There were massive redundancies and soon Xie’s small band of intrepid journalists from North, South and Centre were no more. He had just put his pen down a few years in advance. Being able to come on board with me was a blessing. So pretty soon, he stopped resenting me and actually regarded me as his benefactor. He pushed his glasses back up his nose, clinked his wine cup with mine, and drained it dry. He actually held that pose for fully half a minute. It was something I was only too familiar with. When we were comrades-in-arms and used to go out looking for a brawl, he always put on a fine swagger.

I can’t tell if he’s telling the truth when he’s drinking with me, or if he’s putting on an act, but I don't care. After all, he’s not a colt anymore, he’s a big boy now. Especially since my stroke, with my speech like it is, he’s the only one who can understand me. Even so, I don't completely trust him. I’m an old fox with a sense of smell that’s still sharp, I know he’s got something up his sleeve. There’s no such thing as perfect loyalty in this world. I know that for a fact. One of these days, he’ll get his knife out, and I’ll be waiting happily.

But the main thing I'm waiting for is death. Whenever I'm alone, I know death is crouched beside me like old Pinecone. The Grim Reaper? The Devil? Death? Whatever death means – or even if it means nothing at all – I don’t give a damn. I know it’s nearby, watching me silently, endlessly patient. And the way it looks at me, it’s familiar, Lucky Ho looked at me like that when he was dying. I know quite well that his ghost is sitting there in that side-room, waiting to hear whether I’ve done the thing he asked me to.

The tears keep coming. They’re a sign I’m on my way out.

Nothing can stop them, not even a beautiful bowl of River Rice straight out of the pot, each grain shining with its coating of sizzling oil, the steam wafting up from between the gaps when I press down with my chopsticks. Nothing smells or tastes good anymore. Nothing tickles my ears, tongue, nose – they’ve gone numb. All my brain can do nowadays is tot up the number of bowls of rice that I’ve eaten in my life, and acknowledge how good some of them were. 

I’m thinking about the early years, especially. All that money I spent, and the blood, sweat and tears too. Then Lucky Ho died, my wife Yunqing died, and my son grew up brainless. Then there was the car crash and I got shit thrown at me by my enemies, I was framed for a crime I hadn’t committed, I was nearly banged up, and I was cheated out of three million by the Inner Mongolians, it all felt like pepper spray in my eyes. But I can tell you this loud and clear, however big the disaster, I’ve never been a cry-baby. It’s just these last two years that I haven’t been able to sweat or piss and it’s all come out my eyes instead.

I don’t mind dying, but I do want someone to look after Cang, and find a way of cloning Pinecone. Hah! Whenever I mention Cang, Xie immediately stops pretending to be stupid, sits up straight, and acts like he’s in mourning and his flag’s flying at half-mast. That’s the effect Cang has on people. Mention his name and it's like I’m talking about a disaster or the plague, as if my son were an animal, a bit of rubbish, a human vegetable…. It makes me furious!

I know my boy Cang’s different, but what law says that everyone has to be bright and shiny, bustle in and out of the house every day, act all matey with everyone, have girlfriends swooning all over them and make piles of money at mah-jong or poker?  There isn’t one! My son Cang is his own man, and I’m quite happy to support him. Let me tell you why I’ve worked my arse off my whole life, right up until I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other! It was for two people: Lucky Ho, who’s dead, and Cang, who’s still alive. I’ll carry on looking after him even if it takes ten lifetimes. And why shouldn’t I?

Of course I know what these people around me think of Cang, and it makes them think of son number two, Sang. And they joke about the Mu family’s misfortunes. ‘All that money can’t buy you heirs,’ they sneer. But I’m not finished yet.