1. In the beginning…
I have been working on an artist book of Kafka’s short story ‘The Great Wall of China’ for over a year. 2016 was the 30th anniversary of my return from a year teaching English in Chongqing, Sichuan; 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the creation of Kafka’s story, although it wasn’t published until 1931, after his death. The project has been a somewhat surreal endeavour at a time when the news was full of Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the southern border of the US, to make the Mexican government pay for it, to deport undocumented workers, and to ban Muslims. Kafka’s story seems eerily contemporary.
In the story, a half-century before the wall is started word is spread through the country that people should train as architects and masons for the future. When the work is started, it is built in sections that aren’t connected – when one section is completed the group of workers is moved to a distant place to start another section. The populace is made afraid of invaders and distracted with preventing their arrival, keeping the nation unified by focussing on a defensive project.
I was delighted to get permission from Ian Johnston to use his translation, and from Vihanga Perera to use an essay he had written about the story. The text was sent to Michael and Winifred Bixler to cast new type. Duncan Major agreed to create linocut illustrations, and the wheels were rolling!
I wanted to use Chinese paper and a Chinese structure for the story. After testing several sheets, Duncan and I decided the double xuan paper seemed best. It had a bit of weight so the concertina could be displayed open, and it printed well, so I ordered 200 sheets (27″ x 54″) from a supplier in the US, and the project was underway.