Yu Hua
The Seventh Day

The Seventh Day begins unconventionally after the death of its protagonist, Yang Fei. When we meet him, he is en route to a funeral parlour in Limbo to arrange his own cremation. He takes a number and waits in a queue. All he remembers of his death is hearing an explosion as he sat in a restaurant eating noodles.

Immediately apparent in the funeral parlour are the class divisions among the dead; VIPs wait in a designated lounge and purchase burial sites with views. Fei, on the other hand, with no grave, wears a black armband to signify his status as single, parentless and childless.

Troubled by his lack of memory about life, Fei leaves the crematorium to wander through his afterlife with the other “self mourners”. He spends his first seven days of death reminiscing, including about his brief marriage to an ambitious woman who left him for a man with business connections in America. Most touching is Fei’s relationship with his adoptive father, a railway worker, who discovered him on the train tracks following his misshapen birth in a train toilet. His father strove to provide well for him despite his destitution.

Yu Hua grew up during the Cultural Revolution and this experience colours the novel. Much of The Seventh Day is a catalogue of the woes of contemporary China: organ trafficking, abject poverty and corrupt officials. In one particularly macabre scene, 27 foetuses are discovered floating in a river after a botched disposal by the local hospital.

Fortunately, Hua approaches his subject with a light hand, poking fun at bureaucracy at every turn. There is a strong element of the absurd here; one man stages a protest outside a police station, demanding the restoration of his testicles after they were irreparably damaged during an interrogation.

With all its lingering in the afterlife, the book wants for a clear sense of narrative direction. Though ostensibly the focus is Fei’s search for his dead father, it lacks momentum, and when they finally meet the fleeting reunion feels anticlimactic. We read on instead for Hua’s vision of modern China.

The acute irony underpinning his novel is that there is no equality between people, even in death. The only cause for optimism in Hua’s nightmarish world is family. What makes his characters truly rich isn’t money, but what they are willing to sacrifice for others.  HT

Text, 224pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Yu Hua, The Seventh Day". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: HT