Book cover: Illustration of a woman wearing bright red lipstick and sunglasses, a city reflecting in their shades.

Yan Lianke (translated by Carlos Rojas)
Heart Sutra

Yan Lianke’s Heart Sutra portrays a corrupt and materialistic world overseen by a cynical, sloganeering polity. And, yes, it is unpublishable in China. It centres on an official “religious training centre” in Beijing. There, Buddhist, Daoist, Protestant, Catholic and Muslim devotees take part in faith versus faith tug-of-war games so that the centre’s director can write a thesis that will win him a promotion. When prize money enters the picture, the competition heats up: no one is immune from greed. A young Buddhist nun, Yahui, meanwhile, wrestles with both the tribulations of Beijing’s real estate market and the temptation of marriage to a young, lustful Daoist acolyte.

It’s a decent premise for a novel, especially a satirical one. Overwriting and grotesquery are par for the course with Yan. But in Heart Sutra the style manages to be so excessive, weird and banal – often all at once – that it can be hard to focus on character, theme or narrative: “his shoulders resembled a pair of withered pumpkins suspended in mid-air”; Chang’an Avenue was “vast and empty, with few passersby and a handful of cars that resembled crazy people running around and screaming”. This goes on for sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph. But when everything is like, nothing is. The ongepotchket text seems to have beaten down experienced translator Carlos Rojas: the first line of the Dao De Jing is notoriously hard to translate but surely he could’ve done better than “The Way that cannot be Wayed is the true Way”.

Spirituality is expressed as a series of religious punchlines. The Buddhists’ recitations of Amitabha or the Muslims’ cries of “Allah” are here little more than the religious equivalent of the socialist slogans painted on the canteen walls. There is so little interiority in general that Yahui’s sudden decision to order and sneakily consume meat – a moment made for both high satire and complicated empathy – just feels like another work lunch. Ultimately, the characters are as thin as the papercut artwork by Shang Ailan that illustrates the text – and nowhere near as charming.

Yan’s portrayal of Yahui’s sexuality – essentially rape-receptive if it’s the right person, self-punishing if not – is problematic. I wondered too at how aware he was that to describe a Muslim woman’s feet as smelly and dirty, like “black crows” compared with Yahui’s “white doves”, might be considered racist. Then there is the curious, frequent mention of a massacre of believers that occurred “seventy years ago”, in “Republican times”. The Republic ended in 1949 (do the maths); its rulers were murderous scumbags but they didn’t massacre believers. A case of “the Way that cannot be Wayed”, perhaps?

China has a long and brilliant tradition of literary and political satire. Within this tradition, Heart Sutra beats but faintly.

Text Publishing, 416pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 1, 2023 as "Heart Sutra".

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