Review: Hospital by Han Song, translated by Michael Berry

by Cathy


A twisted, wildly imaginative tale of one man’s mysterious illness and his journey through a dystopian hospital system.

When Yang Wei travels to C City for work, he expects nothing more than a standard business trip. A break from his day-to-day routine, a good paycheck, a nice hotel—nothing too extravagant, of course. No fuss, but all the amenities.

But this is where his problems begin. A complimentary bottle of mineral water from the hotel minibar results in sudden and debilitating stomach pain, followed by unconsciousness. When he wakes three days later, things don’t improve; they get worse. With no explanation, the hotel forcibly sends him to a hospital for examination. There, he receives no diagnosis, no discharge date…just a diligent guide to the labyrinthine medical system he’s now circulating through.

Armed with nothing but his own confusion, Yang Wei travels deeper into the inner workings of the hospital and the secrets it’s hiding from the patients. As he seeks escape and answers, one man’s illness takes him on a quest through a corrupt system and his own troubled mind.

The Story

The word that springs to mind when reading Hospital is: weird. It’s like a weird fever dream you can’t wake up from – which is exactly what seems to happen to the protagonist, Yang Wei.

Government worker, Yang Wei, falls ill while in C City for work. He regains consciousness as he’s being taken to hospital by two workers from the hotel he’s been staying at. Once at the hospital, we quickly learn that once a patient goes in, they never seem to leave. The hospital is an ongoing merry-go-round of jumping through hoops, questioning your beliefs, and proving yourself worthy of the doctors’ treatment.

Han Song has brought every person’s worst nightmares about hospitals to life in this dystopian world. People spend hours waiting in queues, festering in their illnesses, for doctors to save their lives. The image Han Song’s descriptions evoke is dark and disgusting – you wonder whether the hospital is even a place of healing.

Yang Wei seems to be one of the lucky patients – he’s actually admitted as a patient and starts to receive his care (although he hasn’t received a diagnosis). Throughout his time in hospital, Yang Wei is constantly being tested to prove that he’s worthy of being treated.

The author has taken an interesting approach to this dystopian hospital. It’s become a strange mix of hospital and religious centre. Yang Wei is constantly being asked whether he believes in the doctors, the hospital, to the point that he starts to question himself and has to keep reminding himself that he does trust the doctors, he does want to receive their treatment.

The big shock for me was discovering that C City is not actually a city, it’s a hospital. The entire city is one giant hospital. I’d had an inkling of something not being right from the start of the book, but this revelation stomped all over my own theory of what was really going on. From then on, things started to make sense but not completely.

The Writing

Han Song, and by extension his translator Michael Berry, has set a chaotic scene in his writing. First off, the storyline is a little confusing, lots of information is repeated (almost like a mantra) but it’s fired at you in short bursts so you need to keep your hits about you. A lot of the information you get is repeated multiple times – I found this quite helpful as I needed the reminder when I was reading the story – crucial pieces of information are said more than once so that you have the chance to read and absorb what’s being said.

Generally, Michael Berry’s translation is straightforward, clear, and dynamic (excluding the medical terminology that crops up). The translator has used short, punchy sentences which really help the reader navigate the twists and turns of the plotline. The “simple” language helps immensely when dealing with such an intricate story.

The other thing that struck me about the language was the use of “mantras” – different characters who are already indoctrinated into the hospital recite large amounts of information without pausing for breath. It seems as though they’ve had this information drilled into them for years but I wondered whether they actually believed what they were saying. Are they telling the truth? Do they believe what they’re saying? Should Yang Wei trust them?

Final Thoughts

Hospital by Han Song, translated by Michael Berry, is an interesting read but not for the faint-hearted. The descriptions of the hospital are graphic and, at times, unnerving. The author has created a terrifying dystopia that causes you to think and hope that this isn’t the future of our hospitals.

I’d like to say thank you to the author, Han Song, the translator, Michael Berry, and Beata & Brianna at Wunderkind PR for providing me with a copy of the book. | Amazon | Goodreads

About the author

Han Song is a journalist with Xinhua News Agency and one of China’s leading science fiction writers. A native of Chongqing, Han earned an MA in journalism from Wuhan University; he began writing in 1982 and has published numerous volumes of fiction and essays. His novels include The Red Sea, Red Star over America, the Rails trilogy ( Subway, High-Speed Rail, and Orbits), and the Hospital trilogy ( Hospital, Exorcism, and Dead Souls), which has been described as a new landmark in dystopian fiction. Han is a six-time winner of the Chinese Galaxy Award for fiction and a repeat recipient of the Xingyun Award. His short fiction has appeared in the collections Broken Stars and The Reincarnated Giant and the anthology Exploring Dark Short Fiction: A Primer to Han Song. Han Song is also an avid reader and traveler, having traveled to the Antarctic and the Arctic. He’s even searched for bigfoot in the forests of central China.

About the translator

Michael Berry is a professor of contemporary Chinese cultural studies and director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA. He is the author of several books on Chinese film and culture, including Speaking in Images, A History of Pain, and Jia Zhangke on Jia Zhangke. He has served as a film consultant and a juror for numerous film festivals, including the Golden Horse (Taiwan) and the Fresh Wave (Hong Kong). He is also the translator of several novels, including To Live, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (with Susan Chan Egan), and Remains of Life.

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