The Debt Collector, by Wang Shou

translated by John Frederick Franz

Penguin Classics, 2020

Publisher’s Blurb

There was one thing that Chen Sheng knew for certain–the only person who could help him was Zhang Guoliang. As his former boss, Chen Sheng would simply ask him to enter the house of a businessman who owed him money and request the full sum. It was not extortion, it was not a robbery, it was just debt-collection. At least that’s what Chen Sheng told himself until he opened the Rezhou Informer the very morning after the plan’s execution. The front page of the paper told a different story, and there was no one else Chen Sheng could call on now.

Reading Chinese Network Reviews

Reviewed by Rebecca Ehrenwirth, 6/4/20

Compared to literature from English-, Spanish or German-speaking countries, literature from China is rarely translated. This is partly because literature from China is in a way less accessible for a “Western” audience; the translator has not only to translate the language but also the culture. However, with his novel The Debt Collector Wang Shou succeeded in creating a story that crosses cultural borders and is universally understood. He packs up his message in such an ironic and funny way that the reader will not want to put the book down.

The protagonist of the novel is Chen Sheng, a businessman from Rezhou. On the first couple of pages Chen Sheng is described by the narrator as a good-natured man who “extended credit too easily”. The reader can already suspect that this will lead to problems for the businessman. And because Chen Sheng is so kind-hearted, with ordinary measures he cannot convince one of his buyers to pay his debts, because the man is “devoid of any conscience”. So, in order to get his money back, Chen Shou has to take extraordinary steps and he comes up with a plan, which involves another good-natured and rather naïve man who works for him, named Zhang Guoliang. In the following days, Chen Sheng spends a lot of time to win over Zhang Guoliang’s trust and his support in executing his “sophisticated” plan. But as it goes with all sophisticated and well-thought-out plans – they go wrong… This plan has to go wrong because of Zhang Guolinag’s naivety on the one hand and Chen Sheng’s bad luck on the other. Yet, as soon as the plan fails, luckily Chen Sheng comes up with yet another plan – which also fails. And just like in real life, in the end, the antihero, the immoral and corrupt buyer, defeats the two unfortunate and good-hearted men.

By shifting between an authorial narrative situation and Chen Sheng as well as Zhang Guoliang as reflectors of the story, the reader gets a unique insight into the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist and his accomplice. In particular in the end of the novel, the reader follows Chen Sheng’s thoughts in a stream-of-conscience like style. Not only this but also the metaphors and similes that Wang Shou uses, make his novel a delightful and entertaining read: “The sticks of dynamite were as thick as Rezhou’s speciality blood sausage, and were as long as those sausages as well. […] They looked powerful and frightening.”

The translator John Frederick Franz did an excellent job in capturing these amusing moments and transferring them into English without losing the author’s original voice. An amusing and sarcastic short novel which everyone should read.

Reviewed by Rebecca Ehrenwirth