Another novella available in the Penguin China Specials series is Yan Lianke’s Marrow. Yan is relatively well known in the West, particularly by those of us who read the long lists for translation prizes: Dream of Ding Village was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012, and The Four Books and The Explosion Chronicles have featured on the two most recent Man Booker International Prize lists. (Anyone acquainted with those rather lengthy volumes may be surprised (or even relieved) to hear that Marrow, originally published in 1993, only just makes it past 100 pages).

“China is a great place for an author, because such implausible things happen in everyday life,” Yan has said, and Marrow might be described as a tale of everyday life, very different from not only the scale but the overtly political and allegorical nature of his later work. One might even go as far as to categorise it as realism if it weren’t for the fact that one of the first characters we are introduced to is a ghost. Fourth Wife You (Yan, as we have come to expect, names his character according to their function) may have brought up her four disabled children alone, but she still speaks daily to the ghost of their father, who committed suicide when he discovered that the heredity origin of their disabilities lay with him: “Her man had killed himself, terrified of the future.” The future is very much on Fourth Wife You’s mind: having found disabled husbands for her two eldest daughters, she must now marry Third Daughter. Third Daughter, however, demands that her husband has no disability:

“I want a wholer, not a cripple or a one-eyed freak.”

In her favour, we see early on that Fourth Wife is a determined negotiator. When a man offers to reap her fields in return for spending the night with her she agrees, but when he asks for his reward she demands that he marry her first. When he instead threatens to rape her, she replies:

“If you rape me, then I’ll hang myself in your doorway. You still won’t need to pay with your life, you’ll just need to raise my four children until they all have families and jobs of their own.”

She shows this same strength of mind when she is arranging a husband for Third Daughter:

“We would be willing to accept any of the brothers, except for the deaf one.”

Eventually her search leads her to the widower Wu Shu. Despite the fact that he has no fruit trees or animals and only a “three-roomed thatched house that leaks when it rains” she offers him an impressive dowry, including half of her grain. Her obsession with finding a ‘wholer’ has blinded her to his many faults, but, as Yan makes clear, this is a result of the fears and prejudices within her society: at one point the villagers offer her money if she will avoid walking past the house of a woman who is giving birth in case she should affect the child.

Marrow is not simply about the treatment of the disabled, however. When Second Daughter falls pregnant her seizures worsen. Her husband believes that marrow soup will cure her illness but the bones must be “the bones of a dead person, a relative, and the closer the kin the better.” Together they dig up her husband’s bones to make the soup, and the cure is successful, but Fourth Wife knows there are not enough bones in the grave to cure all her children. Her son, Fourth Idiot’s, case is particularly pressing: one reason Third Daughter had to get married was that her brother was intent on molesting her; in her absence he turns his attention to the local cattle. Fourth wife’s final decision makes the novella a powerful endorsement of a mother’s love for her children

“…her excitement gradually faded and was replaced by a layer of pale determination, as though she were wearing a metal mask.”

While it may not have the sweep of his political epics, Marrow demonstrates Yan’s interest in the ordinary life of the rural poor, his refusals to turn away from the worst of it, and his ability to perceive the best.

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7 Responses to “Marrow”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    I’ve read the other books may get round to this one at some point

  2. roughghosts Says:

    Too bad these Penguin books are not readily available here. This sounds more interesting than the sweeping epics.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I like what this author says about China being an interesting environment for an author, a sense of illuminating the extraordinary in everyday life – it sounds like the basis for some thought-provoking fiction.

  4. The Postman | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] published non-fiction, it has previously included stories by Chinese writers such as Yan Lianke (Marrow) and Ge Fei (Flock of Brown Birds). Among its most recent projects are five novellas by younger […]

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