Zhang Yueran ‘L’Hotel du Cygne’

She couldn’t believe it. She had intended to extort a little money from her employers before leaving them. She knew plenty about them, They had a lot to risk if she decided to denounce them. If it should worry Chen Wen then what could be more normal than giving her a little something to keep quiet? But Chen Dongliang had wanted to kidnap the child…..he’d prepared everything to mistreat their hostage, even to never return him to his parents alive.***

The “Swan Hotel” is my sixth book read for the Prix du roman de Rochefort this year, and it was quite some surprise, this is a layer cake of of corruption and greed in modern, one child China. The initial premise is that a very rich couple with no time have a child, a boy, Dada, who is looked after almost full time by a minder, Yu Ling. Yu Ling after 10 years living in Beijing and looking after Dada faithfully and well is like everything else in her employer’s life, a throw away item.

Yu Ling and her accomplice/lover, Dongliang plan to kidnap Dada and ask for a ransom because after all these years living in her employer’s house she knows a thing or two about their business that she thinks they would be willing to pay to keep quiet. They plan their picnic and drive away with the boy. During their picnic, they hear on the radio of Dada’s grandfather being charged with corruption and of his father being arrested. Dada’s mother is abroad and it is pretty clear she won’t be coming back any time soon. So much for the blackmail. They decide to drive the boy back to his house. After a few days Dongliang is unreachable and Yu Ling suspects the worst:

She went into his room and pounced on his bag. no credit card. She let out a short laugh, her legs shaky. Two years earlier, Dongliang and her had gone to the bank together to pick up the credit card, and Dongliang had insisted that the password should be their birth dates. To think that she had even asked him, smiling, which date she should put first….***

The fridge is well stocked and Yu Ling has nowhere to go so she stays to look after Dada with no idea how things will work out. And then Huang Xiaomin turns up at the door, Dada’s father’s mistress who also has no money and nowhere to go, the relationship between the two women is initially strained but they slowly recognise the despair in each other. Dada, the only child, abandoned, still remains the one to obey:

“Can you do something for me? Dada would really like some cheesecake, would you go and buy some? I’ll give you the address.” “You can do it yourself , answered Huang Xiaomin, I promised Dada that I’d play with him.” “I need to take care of him. If you don’t want to go I’ll let you sort that out with Dada.” “Well then, would you rather play together? We can have cake another time!” cooed Huang Xiaomin stroking the childs hair. “I want to eat cheesecake first, we can play afterwards” answered Dada firmly.***

A refreshing view of chinese wild west capitalism and its effects on the people around it, no harmony here.

First Published in chinese.

Translated into french by Lucie Modde and published by Zulma in 2021

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle n’en revenait pas. Elle avait pensé extorquer un peu d’argent à ses employeurs avant de les quitter. Elle en savait long sur eux, ils risquaient gros s’il lui prenait l’envie de les dénoncer. Si la chose suffisait à inquièter Chen Wen, quoi de plus normal qu’elle lui donne une compensation pour l’inciter à se taire? Mais Chen Dongliang avait voulu kidnapper le petit…..il avait tout préparé pour maltraiter leur otage, voire ne jamais le rendre vivant à ses parents.

Elle entra dans sa chambre et se jeta sur sa sacoche. Pas de carte bleue. Elle lâcha un petit rire, les jambes vacillantes. Il y a deux ans, Dongliang et elle étaient allés récupérer cette carte à la banque ensemble, et Dongliang avait insisté pour que le mot de passe soit leurs dates d’anniversaire. Dire qu’elle lui avait demandé en souriant quelle date mettre en premier…

“Vous pourriez me rendre un service? Dada à très envie de cheesecake, vous pourriez aller lui en acheter? Je vous donne l’adresse.” “Tu n’as qu’à le faire, répondit Huang Xiaomin, j’ai promis à Dada que je jouerais avec lui.” “Je dois m’occuper de lui. Si vous ne voulez pas y aller, je vous laisse régler ça avec Dada.” “Bah alors, tu veux qu’on joue plutôt? On mangera du gâteau une autre fois!” roucoula Huang Xiaomin en caressant les cheveux de l’enfant. “Je veux d’abord manger du cheesecake, on jouera après” répondit Dada d’un ton ferme.


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