Yan Lianke’s The Four Books (translated by Carlos Rojas) is set in a re-education camp in China during the Great Leap Forwards when the country was desperately attempting to improve its economic performance via industrialisation on fast forward: the result was widespread famine. Yet it does not read like a historical novel as Lianke, perhaps fearing censorship (though perhaps not – after all, George Orwell retold the Russian Revolution using a farm full of talking animals), tells the story allegorically without reference to specific dates or places, assigning his characters generic names such as the Scholar and the Musician. The story is also told, as the title suggests, through four different narratives (like four Gospels): a quasi-religious book called Heaven’s Child; the official (Criminal Records) and unofficial (Old Course) writings of the Author; and a final book, A New Myth of Sisyphus which acts as a coda.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the psychological insight it provides regarding those imprisoned in the camp, mainly intellectuals. The camp is ruled not by a cruel commandant but by the Child, who is feared due to his sudden changes in temperament (like a child) but is also portrayed as vulnerable and innocent. More than once he enforces his orders by suggesting that if the prisoners are not going to obey they should kill him:
“If you decide to flee, though, I have only one request. I will get a scythe, and if you don’t want to plow the fields and smelt steel…then you should place me under the scythe and slice me in half.”
His punishments, too, are often psychological, for example when he finds the Theologian with a painting of Mary:
“’Say, “I am a pervert”. Once is enough.’
The person didn’t say anything.
The Child turned again toward the painting as though he were about to pee on it.
The person turned pale and his lips started to tremble. He then said repeatedly, ‘I am a pervert, I am a pervert…’”
The camp is also run using a reward system whereby prisoners are awarded red blossoms; collecting enough of these will theoretically lead to release. These can be obtained for working hard, but also for reporting the misdemeanours of others – the Technician, for example, is very keen to catch adulterers:
“You know, I’ve already checked – catching a pair of adulterers will earn us at least twenty small blossoms, which can be converted into four medium-sized ones.”
Ironically, it is through Criminal Records that many of the prisoners’ secrets are revealed to the ‘higher-ups’ rather than through fellow prisoners informing.
Behind all of this lies the attempt to rapidly improve productivity in both agriculture and steel. Targets are set in the belief that belief is all that is needed:
“I know… that you think that the most you can get from a single mu of land is two hundred jin but that is not actually true. To increase production to five hundred jin all you need to do is open your mouths and report that sum, then return to the fields and produce it.”
This need to constantly increase is magnified by competition across the county. Having reported production of six hundred jin, the Child is amazed to hear other camps revealing greater and greater numbers in order to gain rewards:
“…everyone started reporting like crazy. Someone reported five thousand jin, others reported ten thousand, and one person even reported having produced fifty thousand jin per mu.”
This scene makes clear that it is the target-setting and reporting which count, rather than the production. At one point, in attempt to improve yield, the Author uses his own blood to irrigate a field of grain, a symbolic act as well as one of desperation. Steel production is beset by similar problems, but also devastates the landscape as trees are cut down as fuel for the furnaces.
The Four Books is more than political satire, however. Despite the character names, they are not portrayed as types but as individuals. Particularly moving is the love between the Scholar and the Musician, and the lengths they are prepared to go to for each other. All the characters – including the Technician with his frequent betrayals, and even the Child, who understands little beyond the system he must implement – elicit sympathy.
The Four Books works so well because it can be read as a portrayal of a particularly grim episode in China’s history, or, more abstractly, as an allegory of human behaviour in a system of reward and punishment. It also balances its despair with moments of hope, perhaps best exemplified by its almost Beckett-like ending (before A New Myth of Sisyphus). Most surprisingly, perhaps, it is eminently readable, the type of novel where three hundred pages fly by. It fully deserves its place on the Man Booker International Prize long list, and should, if there is any justice, make it to the short list.