The 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (a now defunct award that has morphed into the newly launched Man Booker International Prize) shortlist contained Yan Lianke’s “The Dream of Ding Village” (translated by Cindy Carter), a novel that explored the trade in human blood and the subsequent AIDS crisis in China. After the first edition (in Chinese) sold out the novel was banned and is apparently still unavailable in China.
Yan Lianke’s latest novel “The Four Books” (translated by Carlos Rojas) is another controversial work in Yan Lianke’s homeland, as any novel exploring the Mao Zedong’s economic and social campaign, “The Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961), would. Instead of myself paraphrasing Carols Rojas’ excellent introduction, or attempting to come up with a short precis explaining this complex book, I think it is best to quote Yan Lianke himself, in a recent interview published on the Man Booker International Prize website, he answers the question; “Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel The Four Books?”
The Four Books uses language borrowed from the Chinese translation of the Bible to tell the story of a mysterious Child whose age and origins are left unspecified. This Child uses a set of magical methods to oversee a community of Chinese intellectuals who have been assigned to a settlement on the banks of the Yellow River, where they are subjected to compulsory political ‘re-education’. The narrative spans China’s notorious Great Steel-Smelting campaign and Great Leap Forward, during which people were required to meet impossible production quotas, such as having to harvest several ten thousand jin of grain for every mu of farmland. The excesses of the Great Leap Forward resulted in the Great Famine, in which the thousands of intellectuals in the novel’s Re-education settlement—including characters referred to simply as the Author, the Professor, the Musician, the Theologian, and so forth—almost die of starvation, only to be saved by the Christ-like figure of the Child. For me, the heart of the novel lies not in its descriptions of the hardships undergone by the intellectuals, but rather in its use of an innovative narrative style, which I call ‘mythorealism’. In this way, the novel attempts to offer a new perspective on Chinese history and contemporary reality, together with a set of unique challenges faced by Chinese intellectuals.
The four books are the alternative voices used throughout this novel, “The Old Course”, a novel or view of proceedings as observed by the character The Author, “Criminal Records”, observations and reports made to The Child by The Author, “Heaven’s Child” a third person biblical style narration & “A New Myth of Sisyphus” a short section at the conclusion of the novel. As Carlos Rojas points out;
“…one of the challenges in translating The Four Books involved trying to preserve the shifts in linguistic register between the four fictional ‘books’ that make up the novel. The novel’s narrative moves back and forth between these four distinct fictional texts, each of which was composed for disparate objectives and offers differing perspectives on the historical period in question.”
As we can see from these two interviews, there is an alignment to the Four Books of the Gospel, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and further interpretation can also show Confucian references to the “Four Books”, ‘Great Learning’, ‘Doctrine of the Mean’, ‘Analects”, and ‘Mencius’, the texts illustrating the core value system and beliefs in Confucianism. Theologically there are many levels that could be explored here, not simply “the four books” but the links between the disciples/authors, evangelistic symbolism, alignment of the Child and Author “books” to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (similar tales retold throughout the New Testament) as opposed to the final “book”, “A New Myth of Sisyphus”, as told by The Scholar, and its alignment to the Gospel of John. Deeper analysis could reveal a raft of parallels, however the pressing task of getting though the longlist of the Man Booker International Prize means I’ll have to defer such until a later time.
Aside from the religious alignment, as an allegorical tale this is a wonderfully rich political expose on a tragic period of turmoil in China’s political history, with our characters being un-named (The Child, The Author, The Scholar, The Technician, The Musician, and The Theologian are main examples) all deeply involved, firstly, in the failed attempt to move China from an agrarian economy to a rapidly industrialised economy; to take on the might of England and the USA. Initially this is through the production of food, later the production of steel and then later, the subsequent resultant famine and further reliance on food production (with estimates ranging from 18 to 46 million famine related deaths, this period in China’s history was quite probably the deadliest famine in human history). As The Scholar tells us;
“The world has been turned upside down by this steel smelting, and this has happened on a nationwide scale. It took the strength of the whole nation. In the process of smelting steel, people have chopped down all the trees in all of the mountains, along the rivers, and in all of the villages. There is nowhere that trees have been chopped down that has not suffered either flooding or drought, there is not one that has not subsequently suffered from famine. Everyone receives two liang of grain a day, but by winter it is quite possible that we won’t even receive that much. No one cares any longer whether we live or die. Everyone received to liang of grain a day, and it is up to them to figure out how to eat.”
A running theme throughout is the increasing production targets, whether they be for steel, or food, the frustration at these targets being ridiculously increased and rewarded with red blossoms, or pentagonal stars, with longer term “re-education” rewards of family visits over the Lunar New Year or even release forcing the intellectuals in the 99th (the setting of the novel) to reassess their own beliefs.
With vivid allegorical tales or fables, parables even?, such as growing massive wheat by using human blood as a nutrient, this work leaves no horror unexplored as this period in China’s history is put to the pen. With violence, sexual abuse, even cannibalism all detailed, this is not an easy novel to read, however it is an important one. From the opening pages where we learn of one of our narrator’s fate, The Author, assigned as a political prisoner to the ninety-ninth division in a Re-Ed colony.
The ninety-ninth was located in the central plains region about forty kilometres south of the Yellow River. This stretch of terrain was full of silt that the Yellow River had left behind after repeatedly changing course. Because the Yellow River had flooded over the course of millennia, the quality of the soil was very poor. Most of the peasants had already moved away, leaving only sand, wild grass, and an endless expanse of wasteland interspersed with a handful of villages. This was a perfect place to build prisons to house criminals. From the Ming Dynasty to the post-Liberation period, prisons had flourished here. The number of prisoners peaked at thirty-five thousand, including those sentenced to death as well as others sentenced to labor reform. The primary labor involved reinforcing the embankments along the Yellow River – dredging mud out of the old riverbed, then taking the upper layer of yellow silt and burying it beneath the mud. In this way, it was possible to transform barren wasteland into fertile soil. Reclaiming these thousands of mu of sandy terrain was the work of political criminals engaging in labor reform, planting grain and cotton. Several years after the founding of the People’s Republic, this ceased to be a labor reform colony, and instead became the Re-Ed region.
This novel works on so many levels, whether it is the vivid language, the changing voices, the allegories, the parables, the historical significance, the political edginess or simply an engaging read. It is one of the standout novels of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize Longlist to date, the combinations will surely propel this work further along the success trail, and will surely be discussed by judges of numerous awards. Put simply – one to hunt down.