Yan Lianke’s appearance on the Man Booker International Prize long list makes him the only writer to have a 100% record, The Four Books having made it onto both the official and the shadow jury’s shortlist last year. In 2012 his novel Dream of Ding Village was also shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. This may, of course, lead to a different reaction from the official and shadow juries this year: it’s quite possible that the official jurors are reading Lianke for the first time; for the shadow jury it’s the second (lengthy) book in as many years, and The Explosions Chronicles (translated once again by Carlos Rojas) is stylistically very similar to The Four Books.
As with The Four Books, The Explosion Chronicles sets out to explore the political situation in China, specifically the accelerated industrial revolution which began in the 1950s and has proceeded at an ever-increasing pace since the 1980s. It is estimated that China’s industrialisation has occurred at ten times the speed and one hundred times the scale of Britain’s. To give only one example of this expansion, Shenzhen, which had a population of around 300,000 in 1980, is now home to a staggering ten million people. This is exactly the process which Lianke sets out to record, presented as an official history (or chronicle) of the town of Explosion which he has been hired to write. He does so using many of the tools of satire such as caricature and hyperbole, but infused with elements of magic realism, a style he calls in an afterword mythorealism:
“While realism rigorously accords with a set of logical causal correlations, absurdity discards the causality, and magic realism rediscovers reality’s underlying causality – though this is not precisely the same causality we find in real life. Mythorealism, meanwhile, captures a hidden internal logic contained within China’s reality. It explodes reality, such that China’s absurdity, chaos and disorder – together with non-realism and illogicality – all become easily comprehensible.”
When the novel begins, Explosion is a small village where two families – Kong and Zhu – struggle for power and influence. One night the four Kong sons separate at a crossroads in search of signs which will lead them to their destinies: Mingyao sees an army truck and soon after joins the army; Mingguang finds a piece of chalk and becomes a teacher. Meanwhile Mingliang becomes the first in the village to save ten thousand yuan (a government target) by stealing coal from trains as they slow on a steep hill. He declares to the mayor that “if he were village chief, he would ensure that at least half of the village’s 126 households would become ten-thousand-yuan households” and so displaces Zhu Quingfang. He then pays the villagers to spit on Quingfang until he drowns in spit.
So the feud between the Kong and Zhu families intensifies, a situation made more interesting by the fact that Mingliang had met Quingfang’s daughter, Zhu Ying, on his journey from the crossroads. “Now that I’ve run into you, I have no choice but to marry you,” she tells him. This feud between the families drives the first half of the novel, as Mingliang schemes to expand Explosion by any means necessary and Zhu Ying plots her revenge, first leaving the village so she too can acquire wealth through prostitution:
“When she had left two years earlier she was wearing simple clothing that she, as was customary in Balou, had sewn herself; but now she was decked out in imported clothing that cost thousands of yuan… She swaggered through the village, giving everyone she saw cartons of cigarettes and boxes of chocolates she had brought back from the city.”
In the novel wealth is created by corruption and is then used to corrupt. Though a critique of communist China, it is the unfettered capitalism unleashed by government policies and targets which Lianke attacks. Mingliang’s ambition seems to usurp nature itself: when he is given the letter which announces Explosion has been recognised as a town he places it in the branches of a tree:
“The tree, which was a as tall as a person and had a trunk as wide as a bowl, had for over three years been more dead than alive, but at that moment the faint sound of summer corn sprouting could be heard from its branches…”
This, of course, will remind us of the magic realism of the 1960s, but there’s also something Shakespearian in Lianke’s use of nature to suggest a corrupt world, just as Mingliang’s rise to power also has Shakespearian echoes.
At over four hundred pages, though, some readers may find its relentless focus on what is largely a single issue wearying. In the novel’s second half, without the Kong-Zhu feud, tension certainly weakens as Lianke turns to Mingyao to comment on China’s relationship with the West. The unnamed characters of The Four Books possessed more individuality than the named characters of The Explosion Chronicles, where Lianke seems to move closer to a process where he is content to sketch his story across the surface of his vast canvas. Having said that, in an international prize list, only this and Black Moses arguably lie anywhere outside the European tradition of the novel. Whether it is shortlisted may depend entirely on how fresh it feels to the judges.