I'm trying to imagine a novel such as Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting being written in Chinese. Trainspotting consists of a number of voices, all of them Scottish-accented in one way or another. It's difficult enough to write in unalloyed Pekingese, for example, much less several varieties of Pekingese or of other Sinitic topolects.
Lǎo Shě 老舍 (real name Shū Qìngchūn 舒慶春, a Manchu of the Sumuru clan; February 3, 1899–August 24, 1966), who was renowned for his novels that contain a conspicuous amount of Pekingese terms, used to complain that it was impossible for him to write many of his favorite Pekingese expressions in Chinese characters. The phonetic flexibility of alphabetic scripts, the ability to write down any sounds that are expressed in the speech of a particular language, is conspicuously absent in writing with characters, which is limited to a fixed (and generally rather limited) number of syllables. We have recently encountered these obstacles in a couple of posts on Language Log: "Surprising Transformations of a Beijing Street Name" and "Russian Loans in Northeast and Northwest Mandarin: The Power of Script to Influence Pronunciation."
In Mandarin, there are a little over 400 different syllables, without regard for tone. When the tones are added in, there are less than 1,600 different syllables, since not all syllable types have all four tones. Cantonese has considerably more different syllables than Mandarin (750 distinctive combinations of initials and rimes, without considering the tones). But this is still far fewer than the 8,000-13,000 or so syllables of English (depending upon how they are counted; theoretically, there might be as many as 80,000 possible syllable types in English, but most of these don't occur in actual speech). When ad hoc spellings for foreign words, onomatopoeia, humorous and dialectal effect, and so forth are added in, the phonetic variations available to an author writing in English seem almost limitless, although phonotactic constraints do serve to keep possible syllable types within bounds. (N.B.: We had a lot of very good discussion about the number of syllables in English around the Language Log water cooler yesterday. I hope that my colleagues will contribute their gems of wisdom on this subject to the comments section of this post.)
In Trainspotting, each character employs a unique mode of narration. In particular, the chapters narrated by Renton are characterized by Scots dialog spelled phonetically and those narrated by Davie are presented in Scottish English, while still other chapters are written in Standard English.
Writing full-blown Cantonese of any sort is an enormous challenge. This is a theme we've touched upon many times here at Language Log, most recently in "Cantonese Blackberry Ad."
Writing a novel like Trainspotting in Cantonese would require the author to come up with devices for distinguishing among Hong Kong patois, Mandarin, Mandarin mixed with Cantonese, with perhaps some Hoishan / Taishan speech thrown in, and so forth. I just don't see how it would work, certainly not in a way that would bring along more than a mere handful of readers who would be able to comprehend what the author was intending.
[A tip of the hat to Brendan O'Kane, Mark Liberman, Adam Albright, Lila Gleitman, Ben Zimmer, Bob Bauer, and Don Snow]