The Big Idea: Michael Berry

What is described by translator Michael Berry as a sci-fi dystopian novel may actually be somewhat of a familiar tale to you. Come along in his Big Idea to see how Hospital, by Han Song, ended up being a perfect representation of his own life.


During a recent podcast interview about Hospital, the host asked “Let’s find out if it’s even possible to summarize the plot?” It isn’t an easy question to answer, even for me, the translator of the novel. Even after spending more than a year living and breathing every word of the book, I feel like I am still figuring it out.

Hospital starts off with a fairly straightforward, plot-driven narrative: Yang Wei goes on a business trip to C City, drinks a bottle of complementary mineral water in his hotel room, is almost immediately struck down with unbearable stomach pain, and after passing out for three days, is taken to a local hospital by several members of the hotel staff. And then things gradually start to get strange…flourishes of the uncanny begin to appear and the reader is quickly transported further and further away from the book’s early realist setting into a strange, dark, and increasingly unsettling universe.

As Yang Wei descends deeper into the hospital, undergoing a seemingly never-ending series of tests, examinations, and procedures to treat a mysterious unspoken ailment, the narrative itself also gradually begins to go off the tracks, taking us down a fictional rabbit hole that is uncompromisingly experimental. Gradually, we also realize that the hospital is not what we originally thought, but rather a massive all-encompassing structure that has taken over all of C City, the nation, and the world.

But, in some sense, summarizing the plot is the easy part. The real question is: what is the book about? What is the “big idea”? That proves to be an even more challenging question because I’m not sure if there is a single overriding big idea driving Hospital; instead, it is more like an explosion of ideas – a chronicle of human suffering, a meditation on the institutional violence that has become a part of our daily lives, a dystopian political allegory, an encyclopedic history of medicine, a think piece about the future of AI technology, a literary web spanning classical Chinese literature, western classics and Japanese anime, and a philosophical exploration of the nature of the universe. That’s a lot. And it barely scratches the surface.

In a recent blog post, the author, Han Song, described some of the main ideas in the book…

Hospital: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop

Visit the translator’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

Read on at: The Big Idea: Michael Berry

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