Book of the month: Yan Lianke

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This novel has the distinction of being the first book of the month to come from a country that I have already featured in this slot. My inaugural Chinese BOTM choice was Cao Wenxuan’s delightful children’s story Bronze and Sunflower, which this month won the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. Hearty congratulations to its English-language translator, Helen Wang.

My next pick – or rather its author – has been on my radar since my original year of reading the world. Yan Lianke was one of a number of Chinese writers recommended to me by translator Nicky Harman, who kindly undertook to give me some advice on what I might read from the planet’s most populous nation. In the end, I went with a novel translated by Harman – Han Dong’s striking and unjustly overlooked Banished! – however, I was intrigued by what she had told me about controversial Beijing-based satirist Yan and have had it in mind to read his work since then.

So when I happened upon several translations of his novels in Hatchards bookshop on London’s Piccadilly a few weeks back, I decided to pick one out. Several sounded tempting, but it was the premise of Lenin’s Kisses that swung it.

Revolving around Liven, a village populated almost exclusively by disabled people in China’s remote Balou mountains, the narrative follows the unfolding of a plan by ambitious county official Chief Liu. With a view to enriching the region beyond its inhabitants’ wildest imaginings, he resolves to purchase Lenin’s embalmed corpse from Russia and use it as a tourist attraction to draw visitors from all over the world. In order to raise the funds to attempt this, he proposes to use Liven’s residents to stage a travelling freak show, with extraordinary and sometimes alarming results.

If the summary makes you think this is a quirky book, you’d be right. The story is decidedly odd and Yan makes no apology for that. Elements of the fantastic creep in – snow falls in summer, a woman with dwarfism is cured by having sex with a man of normal height, the freak-show performers prove themselves capable of mind-boggling feats.

What’s more, the structure of the book magnifies its strangeness. Weirdly arbitrary footnotes pepper the text, running on for pages and pages, sometimes with notes on the notes, so that the reader is sent hither and thither, as narrative within narrative opens and closes like the petals of rare flowers. This can be irritating at first (and I have to confess I wouldn’t want to attempt this book on an ereader), but when you relax into it, it quickly becomes part of the playfulness in what is at times a very funny book.

It is perhaps this use of humour that allows Yan to get away with some of the more daring political criticisms lodged in the text (unlike several of his other books, Lenin’s Kisses has not been banned in Mainland China and was even given the prestigious Lao She Literary award, although it did cost him his employment as an author for the People’s Liberation Army). Though much of the novel could be read as a criticism of capitalism – the worst events result from the accumulation of obscene wealth by the unexpectedly successful performers – there is no shortage of jibes at ‘higher ups’ closer to home.

Yan, who has admitted self-censoring his work, does a powerful line in pointed observations that could be read several ways. The following is a great example: ‘The government looks after its people and the people should remember the government’s kindness; this is the way things had been for thousands of years.’

Quirky though it is (and by far the funniest Chinese literary work I have read), the novel does share some characteristics with other books I’ve encountered from the nation. The language is earthier and more abrasive than you often see in anglophone literature – expletives abound in some sections and curses are hurled around rather casually. What’s more, descriptions of violence and bodily functions are quite graphic.

That said, the narrative also reflects many of the universal traits found in the world’s best storytelling too. Yan has extraordinary psychological insight and traces the thought processes of his characters with a deftness reminiscent of some of the greatest authors from the home nation of Lenin’s corpse. His depiction of the Hall of Devotion, for example, a room where Chief Liu records (and sometimes embellishes) his achievements alongside those of the world’s great communist leaders is wonderful. Similarly, in Grandma Mao Zhi, the formidable spokeswoman of the people of Liven, he creates an extraordinary portrait of a person spurred on and yet also destroyed by the desire to fulfil a vow.

Clever, daring, amusing and inventive, this is an excellent read. It thoroughly deserves the many accolades it has achieved and is without question a world-class book. The front of my copy features the following endorsement from celebrated Chinese-American writer Ha Jin: ‘The publication of this magnificent work in English should be an occasion for celebration.’ He is right.

Lenin’s Kisses by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Vintage, 2013)

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