A rich, beautifully written, consistently surprising satire, Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses boasts an elaborate, engrossing plot with disarming twists and compelling characters both challenged and challenging. It leads the reader on a strange pilgrimage—often melancholy but certainly rewarding—through a China by turns traditional, modern, and fantastical.
The novel centers on the history and destiny of Liven, a remote village in northern China populated by invalids. To be a citizen of Liven, one must be disabled in some way great or small. But so sweetly harmonious is the bucolic life there, some even maim themselves to be allowed to take up residency. Liven’s origins lie in a mythical past of heavenly days before the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the convulsions of the twentieth century, including the Communist Revolution and Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward. Despite being a village of cripples, Liven is not a crippled village: symbiotic hard work ensures its people a life of plenty. As the shadow of modern times falls on China, Liven finds itself at odds with the world at large, populated by able-bodied “wholers.” From the first page, its fortunes take an especially strange turn with the onset of some paradoxical weather: “Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven, it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow.”
High praise for translator Carlos Rojas’s discovery of the ideal English name for Lianke’s mythical Chinese village. In his concise, enlivening preface Professor Rojas explains that the Chinese verb shouhuo, which he translates as “to liven . . . is composed of two Chinese characters that literally mean ‘to receive life’, but in the novel’s regional dialect are used to refer to enjoyment, pleasure, or even sexual intercourse.” This pitch-perfect target-language key at the heart of Rojas’s translation—an impressive feat of lucid, flowing prose—provides an effective comic touchstone; the novel’s exegesis begins and ends with the village’s axiomatic name. It also raises the possibility for Liven, and its unforgettable story, to assume a permanent place in the popular literary imagination.
Lenin’s Kisses divides its narrative into three essential areas of focus. The two main protagonists are Grandma Mao Zhi, matriarch of Liven, and County Chief Liu, a government functionary who presides like a minor deity over his district of Shuanghuai. Between them they represent the dangerous, unrelenting tension between traditional ways and modern bureaucracy. Caught within their powerful yin-yang vortex is the wonderful, absurd, and utterly hapless Liven Special Skills Performance Troupe.
A devoted revolutionary who sees her dreams turn to nightmares, Mao Zhi symbolizes the sufferings and endurance of twentieth century China. When communism arrives she discovers that her village is neither recognized by the government nor shown on any map; she petitions that it be allowed to join the world and, after grueling pilgrimages to various seats of government, Liven is welcomed into the new China.
But when Mao Zhi tries to govern Liven through common sense and traditional wisdom, especially when it comes to helping the village endure China’s cataclysmic famine which followed Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward, all of Liven is denounced for counterrevolutionary activity, simply because they sensibly stored up their harvest against impending starvation. Nevertheless, the villagers are accused of greed, and the rest of the country comes calling to appropriate all their grain, tools, and livestock. Ironies abound: to save her people, Mao Zhi, ardent daughter of the revolution, must accept the charges of her accusers in the new Maoist cadres.
As I write this I’m examining a grim black and white photograph from the Cultural Revolution: two suspected counter-revolutionaries are pinioned atop a farm truck packed with loyal Maoists; placards hanging round their necks declare their anti-revolutionary crimes; the truck is surrounded by a teeming crowd, all “struggling against” the offensive criminals. This picture is nearly identical to one of the more harrowing scenes of tribulation which Lianke describes, when Mao Zhi is forced to answer for the crimes of Liven. Summoned to the district capital, Mao Zhi prudently confesses to being a counter-revolutionary, and is spared, while the other “criminal” by her side has his brains blown out. Thus, despite the multiple positive implications of its name, Liven becomes a fallen Shangri-La, and Mao Zhi will spend the rest of her life trying to redeem it and restore its happy past.
Grandma Mao Zhi’s counterpart is County Chief Liu, who concocts an improbable scheme to purchase Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed corpse from a cash-strapped Moscow. His chuckleheaded assumption is that, once installed in a gleaming new mausoleum atop Spirit Mountain, the corpse will attract endless hordes of paying tourists, thus ensuring the district a livening mountain of money, more than it can ever spend.
This feckless communist-cum-capitalist party cog who, despite delusions of grandeur, is doomed to failure, provides the satirical alloy to the sombre tale of Grandma Mao and Liven. When Liu visits Liven during its annual livening festival, some of the disabled villagers honor him with a performance of their many unusual skills. Paraplegic Woman can embroider a butterfly on a poplar leaf with astonishing dexterity. Blind Tonghua can hear a feather land anywhere on the stage. One-Legged Monkey can outrun an able-bodied man and perform an amazing long jump. In their quaint freak show Chief Liu spies his golden goose: a special skills performance troupe to tour China and raise the millions needed to purchase Lenin’s corpse. Granda Mao Zhi bitterly agrees to his mad scheme with an equally quixotic proposal; in exchange for granting the troupe permission to tour China, she secures Chief Liu’s promise to allow Liven to once more withdraw from society in order to rediscover its heavenly days of livening.
The novel’s structure offers only odd numbered chapters which are meant, according to Professor Rojas, to signify Liven’s (and China’s) off-kilter progress through modernity. Most are followed by a variety of endnotes for “Further Reading”: some, with blunt-toothed sarcasm, constitute a simple, obvious gloss, while others go much further field, flowering out into complex, full-fledged chapters.
Liven’s saga is both moving and gut-wrenching as well as mordantly, brutally, bitterly funny; it spares neither its characters nor its readers the multitudinous disasters of human folly. The novel is a veritable Chinese Box of absurd tribulations, each one containing its own Russian matryoshka doll. But the figurine’s faces are painted in outrage, mirroring the reader’s disbelief at Liven’s seemingly endless misfortunes.
Sometimes the plot’s style reads like a modern fable of the kind found in Hesse’s Siddhartha or Flaubert’s Legend of St. Julian Hospitaler with its flat recounting of grief and endurance in the face of impossible suffering. During one particularly grueling episode, the special skills performance troupe finds itself held prisoner inside the splendid new Lenin Mausoleum, built with the profits from its hundreds of high-priced, sold-out shows. Their jailers are none other than the band of “wholer” roadies who’ve shepherded them around China for the past year. Jealous of the cripples’s vast earnings, they hold them ransom against themselves, extracting their every last yuan by selling them food and water at outrageous prices. And when the suffering cripples of Liven have, once again, given their all, the demands only become more outrageous.
Betrayed by every other social arrangement–feudalism, Marxism, communism, Maoism, bureaucracy, capitalism, show business, and the tenuous honor among thieves–Liven finally has nothing but itself, alone among the remote mountains of Balou with the blossoms floating on the spring breeze as in the famous 5th century poem “Peach Blossom Land” by Tao Yuan Ming. For a moment, the message seems to be that compassionate solidarity with our lowest common denominator might be the true path, but in the end Liven is no staging ground for revolution, simply a threshing floor, a harsh oasis, a lonely last resort. Lenin’s Kisses, however, offers an irresistible attraction for readers of powerful, uncompromising satire. So pucker up, buttercup.