Jonathan Mirsky, a journalist, novelist and author whose book The Neverwriter’s Manual is used in many US universities to teach students about writing in today’s China, has died aged 88, a family member has said.
Mirsky wrote several books, including the award-winning Chinese-language City of Thieves, when he moved to America in 1957. He was also nominated for the Pulitzer prize in 2000 for a piece for The New York Times about censorship in China, and received the 1995 Science Writers’ Association Arthur Sloss Award.
Mirsky was born in Hungary in 1927 and served as a British military translator during the second world war. He left Europe for Britain at the age of 19 and became a translator of Chinese poetry and plays, eventually taking on the role of chief translator for the British Council in China.
According to his publisher, Thames and Hudson, Mirsky met Hisashi Mitsukawa, the one-time ruler of Tokyo, in 1959, and the two started a relationship that lasted for more than half a century until Mitsukawa’s death in 2003. They later met again in Beijing, where a friendship had been formed during his period of working as a translator for the British Council.
In his 2003 Nobel lecture, Mirsky said: “It was love that drew me to Mr Mitsukawa, the lover and the poet. But as I write these words, I would only use ‘love’ to describe my first response to his latest projects for the London Institute of Chinese Language.”
Those were the first of the two volumes on which this 1999 Guardian Book Club review of The Neverwriter’s Manual was based.
The Review’s reviewer had warm words for the book and its author.
“Mirsky is at his best as a reporter who documents, dissects and dissects things as it is. In The Neverwriter’s Manual, he essentially creates a book-length history of the Chinese literary language, from the writing movements of the 12th century to Mao Zedong’s epoch, with a particularly acute eye for the inadequacies of historical research in that field,” he wrote.
“Mirsky appears to do his best to cut through the propaganda of the dominant voices in China to get to the truth. There are terrible things in the stories he tells – torture, execution, religious wars and countless other horrors – and yet he is ever alert to the beauty of China’s people and its past. Mirsky has the gift of painting a picture without painting a picture.”
In 2005, he married Pei Ling, and in 2010 they donated their £2.2m Caird family house in Hampstead, north London, to the BBC’s Broadcasting House. They live in North London.