Books

Yan Lianke
The Four Books

During the Great Leap Forward of 1958, the Chinese Communist Party ordered Chinese citizens to throw their pots and pans into furnaces to make the steel that would allow China to quadruple its industrial production. But all they produced was pig iron, and the furnaces devoured China’s woodlands. The party commanded the farmers to quadruple their harvests. But overplanting led to massive crop failures, and tens of millions died in the great famine that followed. Out of this terrible history, novelist Yan Lianke has produced one of contemporary Chinese literature’s richest, wittiest, most seductive and powerful novels.

The Four Books is set in a re-education-through-labour (Re-Ed) camp close to the Yellow River. Its population of thought criminals go by such generic names as the Author, the Scholar, the Musician, the Theologian and the Child. The Child, who runs the camp, is a particularly intriguing character. A genuine child, he is capricious in the exercise of his power, but not unsympathetic to his charges. He is in turn pathetically beholden to the “higher-ups”, themselves at the mercy of the whims of “that great, great man, that highest of higher-ups”.

The Author is the writer of two of the interspersed “four books” of the title: Criminal Records, in which he informs on the others’ political and personal peccadillos for personal reward, and Old Course, notes for the novel-of-record that he will write once he is released. Then there’s Heaven’s Child, a third-person narrative with mythic and biblical overtones. The fourth is A New Myth of Sisyphus, an excerpt from which concludes The Four Books with a meditation on the Sisyphus myth and what might happen if Sisyphus was able to find meaning in his meaningless punishment. The surreal/hyperreal world of The Four Books is one where you can hear the sound of clouds “sliding” across the sky and where a man literally waters his field with his blood.

Carlos Rojas’s English translation, with its sharp imagery and rhythmic prose, is a joy to read. Chinese readers, presumably, are in for an even bigger treat – or would be, had it been able to be published in China. But the true story of the events of the late 1950s, a frequent (if controversial) theme of art and literature in the 1980s, cannot be told there today. Knowing he was unlikely to get a publisher, Yan has said, he could write “exactly as I wanted to”.  CG

Text, 352pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2015 as "Yan Lianke, The Four Books ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG

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