Posts Tagged ‘Yan Lianke’

Marrow

December 6, 2017

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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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The Explosion Chronicles

April 16, 2017

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.

The Four Books

April 8, 2016

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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.

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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.

Dream of Ding Village

March 16, 2012

Dream of Ding Village seems to be only the second of Yan Lianke’s novels to be translated into English, the first having been the earlier Serve the People. Whereas, from the title onward, Serve the People seems more in keeping with the satirical style he is associated with (it will not surprise you to learn that both novels have been banned in China), Dream of Ding Village, for all it is equally scathing in its portrayal of government both nationally and locally, is probably in that category of documentary fiction which only seems satirical because you can hardly believe that it happened. As the title suggests, Lianke tells his story – that of the spread of AIDs in rural China through blood collection – by focusing on the events in one village. By adopting a communal narrative rather than centring the story on an individual, Lianke emphasises that this ‘plague’ destroyed communities as well as lives, while at the same time making it clear that Ding Village is simply representative of the devastation which many villages experienced.

The novel begins with the village already decimated by death:

“Choked by death, it will not die. In the silent shades of autumn, the village has withered, along with its people. They shrink and wither in tandem with the days, like corpses buried underground.”

It is already clear that those who have sold their blood might be taken any day by the ‘fever’. How long they will last varies, but they will eventually die. Lianke is not interested in the tension that he might create by sketching the arrival of the ‘plague’; he is concerned with the individual stories of those who have it. As the novel progresses, we hear the tales of those who, for various reasons, chose to sell blood. This retrospective approach adds to the pathos. The common denominator is often a desperate poverty: selling blood seems an almost miraculous chance of prosperity. Thatched roofs are replaced with tiles; houses develop second storeys. Only later is the cost made plain.

In keeping with a novel about death, the narrator is also dead, not from AIDs but

“…because my dad had run a blood collection station in Ding village ten years earlier….He wasn’t just a blood merchant, he was a blood kingpin.”

The narrator, his twelve-year-old son, is poisoned in revenge, and, just in case we have any doubt that Ding Hui is the villain of the piece, we are immediately told that “the day I died my dad didn’t even cry.” Ding Hui profits from the suffering of others throughout: having first become wealthy form buying and selling blood, he goes on to exploit the sale of coffins, and finally makes money out of arranging marriages between those who have died single.

If Ding Hui is the villain, then the hero is his father, the narrator’s Grandpa, who apologises to the village on behalf of his son when Hui refuses. As school caretaker, he then opens the school to the sick and looks after them. A respected figure in the village at the beginning, this respect dwindles due to the behaviour of his sons. His other son, Ding Liang, is a more ambiguous character. Though frequently selfish, and characterised by his lazy grin which suggests he takes nothing seriously, he begins an affair with a married woman who, like him, has the ‘fever’. Although his father is ashamed by this behaviour, which is used to blackmail him at one point, Liang simply wants to continue living life as fully as he can, and some of the scenes between Liang and his mistress are genuinely tender, especially as they near death, though never sentimental.

The only aspect of the novel I felt to be unnecessary was the conceit of the Grandpa’s dreams. Sometimes they allowed him to foresee what would happen; at other times they worked through symbolism. Generally they interrupted rather than added to the narrative which was strong enough without them. Indeed, it is the strength of the story, grounded in an appalling truth, which makes this novel so vital. But, though Ding Hui borders on caricature at times, and the ending is a little too neat, it is a story that is also skilfully told.