Yan Lianke is a preeminent critic of Chinese society. He’s written more than a dozen novels, none of which flattered the ruling regime. Beijing responded by banning almost all of Yan’s books. To find a copy of one of his novels in the original Chinese, you’ll need to travel to Taiwan.
The Four Books is set inside a re-education camp in 1950s China. Re-Ed 99 is home to the worst dregs of Chinese society: intellectuals. In the Re-Ed 99, these criminals perform hard labor in an attempt to curry favor and thus freedom.
When Yan won the Kafka Prize in 2014 for his novel, The Four Books, I rushed out to buy it. Then the book languished on my to-be-read pile until Twitter woke me up. The Litfest International Fiction Book Club would discuss Yan and his Four Books in January. Yan’s publisher Laura Susijn and his long-time translator Carlos Rojas would speak. This was an offer too good to refuse.
The timing is right. Beijing grows more Kafkaesque by the day. One week, China exults in Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao winning a Golden Globe. The next week, it damns her for once describing China as a country where there are lies everywhere.
It could have been a line out of a Yan Lianke novel. I want to see how a novelist, who’s spent his entire life inside China, navigates his way through the world of censors.
Gospel according to Yan
At the Litfest book club, Yan’s publisher Laura Susijn tells us that Yan used three literary touchstones for The Four Books: the Bible, magic realism and Catch-22. The Bible’s influence is obvious from the title — the four Christian gospels — as well as the Biblical look and feel translator Rojas sought to bring to this work. Here’s how The Four Books opens.
The great earth and the mortal path returned together.Yan Lianke, The Four Books (Grove Press 2010), English translation by Carlos Rojas (2015)
After autumn, the vast wilderness was leveled, and the people appeared small and insignificant. A black star began to grow. The houses in the Re-Education district parted the heavens and split the earth. People settled down there. So it came to pass.
The story of the Re-Ed 99 prisoners is fractured across four manuscripts, the titular four books. Two of these books are written by the Author, who seeks to curry favor with the higher-ups by functioning as a human panopticon. He informs on the lovers, the Musician and her Scholar. He delivers his reports to the Child, the camp commandant who rules the prisoners with cajolery, flattery and outright psychological blackmail.
“If you don’t plow the fields and smelt steel, that’s all right,” the Child said. “And if you decide to flee, that’s okay, too. […] I have only one request. I will get a scythe, and if you don’t want to plow the fields or smelt steel, and don’t want that bullet, then you should place me under the scythe and slice me in half.”Yan Lianke, The Four Books
3 Years of Natural Disasters
From 1958 to 1960, the Chinese government rolled out a program of intense industrialization. Farmers divided their scarce time and resources between plowing the fields and smelting steel. Henan province, where Yan was born, housed the first such experimental commune where backyard steel ovens became the norm.
To meet the quota set by the higher-ups, the intellectuals of Re-Ed 99 melt their farming tools and cooking pots in an attempt to produce steel. When they discover that the black sand in the riverbanks contains enough metal for smelting, the neighboring area is promptly denuded of anything that could be burned as fuel: trees, chairs, chopsticks.
In the Litfest book club, some members were shocked to learn that the events recorded in The Four Books really happened. The Great Leap Forward led directly to famine. Some estimates place the number who starved to death at 45 million. Yan grew up during the Great Famine. He remembers his mother teaching him which types of clay and bark were edible. In the Re-Ed 99, the prisoners soon ignore this advice. They will eat anything that might still their hunger including each other.
In China, the correct euphemism for this dark historical period is the Three Years of Natural Disasters. Wholesale deforestation led to sandstorms and floods, increasing the misery of the Chinese and, no doubt, the number of dead. Yan refuses to use this euphemism. He says, language matters.
I wish I could say that Yan writes beautifully. He doesn’t. I don’t hear much of a difference among the four books that comprise Yan’s novel, even though they are supposed to have been written by different persons. To my Western ear, there is no musicality to Yan’s language. No images to transport me into another reality. I am held firmly at arm’s distance, allowed only to witness from afar life and death in Re-Ed 99.
Perhaps this is intentional. There is nothing beautiful about a re-education camp or a misguided industrialization program or death by starvation.
Yan’s style is experimental and surreal, and he is credited with developing a strain of absurdism that he terms “mythorealism.” As he puts it, “The reality of China is so outrageous that it defies belief and renders realism inert.”Jiayang Fan, “Yan Lianke’s Forbidden Satires of China” in The New Yorker, 15 Oct 2018
Yan has described mythorealism as a truth concealed by truth. His translator Carlos Rojas tells the Litfest book club that Yan has written a new book on the topic. In it, Yan will trace the origins of his theory of mythorealism from the 19th century high realists (Tolstoy and Dickens), through the magic realists (Garcia Marquez) to his own relati0nship with non-reality.
It sounds quite high brow and apparently above my pay grade. I feel like I’ve missed something significant creeping beneath the surface of The Four Books.
I asked Yan’s brother if he’d read any of Yan’s books. The older man smiled sheepishly. “I’ve tried, but what’s the point?” he said, kicking at an invisible pebble. “It’s all beyond me.”Jiayang Fan
9 April 2021 | Karen Kao