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The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver by Chan Koonchung

Koonchung’s enjoyable and revealing romp through Lhasa and Beijing explores the status of Tibetans and the darker elements of life in China. Champa is a sort-of loveable young guy who grew up in Tibet dreaming of visiting Beijing. The reality of endless permits that Tibetans must have to live and work along with, and the scrapes that Champa finds himself making getting to Beijing, are an adventure in itself, and Champa is in for a rude awakening when he does finally arrive. Champa’s own haplessness, preoccupation with his iPad and exasperation at the people he finds makes the novel a light and meandering approach to the issues that Koonchung is clearly engaged with.

Champa is the driver and lover to the older, cartoonishly greedy Plum: a super-smart operator in shady dealings that include everything from importing souvenirs to courting big business on visits to China. Champa is given all that he wants: a brand new car, designer clothes and plenty of gadgets to pass the time. The problem comes when Plum disappears on business trips that leave Champa dreaming of Beijing and pretty women. Champa becomes bored of his status and finds monogamy a burden. The fate of ‘little Champa’ and his struggle to perform under pressure with Plum has a rather large part of the first act devoted to him.

It’s when Champa leaves Plum that we get to see how China is for Champa and his adolescent yearnings. Plum’s daughter takes him in and gets embroiled in protestors stopping a huge van of dogs being smuggled out for fighting on the highway. The tweeting and bribing involved in liberating the dogs is just a glimmer of the moral compass that Koonchung reveals at height of Champa’s disinterest. A Tibetan hitch-hiker that tells Champa the Tibetan terms for the Gods he knows in Chinese and the uncensored history of how Tibet was crippled by China slots in the marginalisation of Tibetans that rumble throughout: characters constantly tease Champa and remind him that he’ll never get the permits for just about anything he would like to do.

Between the humour of Champa scuffling his way through and working out his place in the world and the oppression that surrounds him, The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver is an odd sort of narrative that tries hard to have a seemingly ignorant protagonist and enlightened an audience. Even at the most extreme moments of oppression by the government, Champa simply gets depressed and moves on. The loss of significance or real change in Champa often fails to be funny and mutes the impact that Koonchung must have intended on the reader.

Aside from the clash in tone, The Unbearable Dreamworld is extremely readable and Koonchung captures excellent scenes of crowded streets and secret corridors that illustrate he is a very talented writer. For anyone that is interested in Chinese society or just wants to expand their horizons, Koonchung provides a lightweight book that offers great insight into China and the ways in which oppression flourishes for the likes of people deemed ‘invisible’ for marginalised and transient people just like Champa.

REVIEWER: Jazz Croft

TITLE: The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver

AUTHOR(S): Chan Koonchung

PUBLISHER: Penguin Random House

RRP: $36.99