Books

Yan Lianke
The Years, Months, Days

The Years, Months, Days was awarded the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2001 and is among Chinese author Yan Lianke’s most popular novellas. It’s also a weirdly intoxicating book that moves from passages of stark realism to the most vivid sort of nightmare fantasy.

The sun beats down mercilessly. All the villagers except one have fled east to escape the drought. A 72-year-old farmer has decided to stay and tend a single remaining stalk of corn, the last bit of green in the whole county. A blind dog, loyal to the end, is his only companion.

The drought goes on and the old man endures. In one memorable scene, he tries to tame the sun with a whip, whipping it until its fragments fall to the earth like torn petals. In another, he watches a tide of starving rats and gleaming red eyes pour over a cliff and disappear in a cloud of dust.

And above him loom the sublime Balou Mountains:

The Elder raised his head and heard shrill screams coming from the west. He peered into the distance, and between the two mountain peaks he could see the sun being swallowed by another mountain peak. The remaining blood-red stain flowed from the peaks down to the foot of the mountains, then back up to the Elder.

This rugged country is the backdrop for many of Yan’s books and a key part of his personal folk mythology, but never has it appeared so lurid and menacing.

What should we make of Yan Lianke, this former army propagandist who is now one of China’s most respected authors? He’s not exactly a dissident, but nor is he a shill for the one-party state.

Consider, for example, the symbolism of that awful and unrelenting sun. It’s worth remembering that Mao Zedong was closely associated with sun imagery during the Cultural Revolution, and that Yan was born in Henan province, the region hardest hit by the famines that followed Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

And yet, for all its twisted humour, black fabulism and subversive potential, it’s easy to see why the censors in Beijing gave this strange little book the all clear. It is, in the end, a rather sentimental parable, a tale of suffering and sacrifice, a celebration of companionship and peasant ingenuity.

And when the drought does break there is the promise of a new paradise for all – men, women and dogs alike.  JR

Text, 112pp, $19.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as "Yan Lianke, The Years, Months, Days". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR

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