26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brendan Riley on Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas and published by Grove Press.

This is Yan Lianke’s third book to come out in English translation, the first two being Serve the People! and Dream of Ding Village. (Interestingly, this is his third translator, with Julia Lovell having done Serve the People! and Cindy Carter having translated Ding Village.)

In terms of Brendan Riley, he was born in Dunkirk, New York in the Year of the Fire Horse. He holds degrees in English literature from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. He has worked for many years as a teacher, translator, editor, and writer. An ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, he also holds certificates in translation studies from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His translations include works by Juan Velasco, Álvaro Enrigue, Juan Filloy, and Carlos Fuentes.

Here’s the opening of his very positive review:

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.

26 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sharon Rhodes on Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, which is translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter, and available from Grove Press.

Sharon Rhodes is a Ph.D. candidate here at the University of Rochester who wrote this as part of an assignment so far back that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that she not only had her degree, but that she’s already tenured somewhere. But seriously, I’m a bit behind in posting reviews . . .

Here’s the opening:

Dream of Ding Village tells the story of a village destroyed by unregulated blood selling. Gloomily enough, the novel is narrated by a 12 year-old-boy who died without ever having sold his blood; instead, the narrator, Ding Quiang, was murdered by villagers with a grudge against his father, Ding Hui, the local blood head. Quiang goes back in time to the beginning of the blood boom in Wei County of Henan province, detailing how government officials first set up blood banks and then, how his father found a niche in the market. Ding Hui bought blood from the inhabitants of Ding Village as well as those of other nearby villages, and sold it for profit. At first this brought great prosperity, although those who sold blood frequently were weakened by the practice, but then, roughly ten years later, people started coming down with what Quiang and the villagers called “the fever.”

Nearly everyone who sold blood to Ding Hui or his subsidiary blood heads, about one person in each household of Ding Village, got “the fever”: AIDS was passed from person to person through re-used needles. This puts an end to the blood boom in Ding Village, though not before Ding Hui’s financial success enabled him to build a three story tile house in a village of one room mud huts. A few villagers who worked for Ding Hui were also able to build tile houses; but after the blood boom most of the villagers were no better off than before, and many had contracted HIV.

Despite the tragedy that resulted from his actions, Ding Hui refuses to apologize to the inhabitants of Ding Village. Instead, taking advantage of government subsidies for those infected with AIDS Ding Hui continues to turn a profit at the expense of those already injured by his actions. First he sells the government-provided food for profit, then coffins (a commodity in high demand), then he begins to profit from matchmaking—helping families find dead husbands and wives for their dead daughters and sons.

Click here to read the entire review.

30 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Dream of Ding Village tells the story of a village destroyed by unregulated blood selling. Gloomily enough, the novel is narrated by a 12 year-old-boy who died without ever having sold his blood; instead, the narrator, Ding Quiang, was murdered by villagers with a grudge against his father, Ding Hui, the local blood head. Quiang goes back in time to the beginning of the blood boom in Wei County of Henan province, detailing how government officials first set up blood banks and then, how his father found a niche in the market. Ding Hui bought blood from the inhabitants of Ding Village as well as those of other nearby villages, and sold it for profit. At first this brought great prosperity, although those who sold blood frequently were weakened by the practice, but then, roughly ten years later, people started coming down with what Quiang and the villagers called “the fever.”

Nearly everyone who sold blood to Ding Hui or his subsidiary blood heads, about one person in each household of Ding Village, got “the fever”: AIDS was passed from person to person through re-used needles. This puts an end to the blood boom in Ding Village, though not before Ding Hui’s financial success enabled him to build a three story tile house in a village of one room mud huts. A few villagers who worked for Ding Hui were also able to build tile houses; but after the blood boom most of the villagers were no better off than before, and many had contracted HIV.

Despite the tragedy that resulted from his actions, Ding Hui refuses to apologize to the inhabitants of Ding Village. Instead, taking advantage of government subsidies for those infected with AIDS Ding Hui continues to turn a profit at the expense of those already injured by his actions. First he sells the government-provided food for profit, then coffins (a commodity in high demand), then he begins to profit from matchmaking—helping families find dead husbands and wives for their dead daughters and sons.

Unfortunately, like most stories of corruption and tragedy, Ding Hui cannot be blamed for all of the problems of Ding Village. As Quiang’s story unravels, it reveals the superficiality and selfishness of the villagers who—faced with death after death, whether their own or that of loved ones—come to value coffins and funeral preparations and even the wedding of two dead children over living. Because Ding Hui has sold the government subsidized coffins elsewhere, and straw mats are no longer fashionable containers with which to bury the dead, the villagers strip the local school of desks, doors and window frames and then, needing still more material for coffins, begin cutting down the village’s venerable trees. When they’ve finished, Ding Village has no school and no shade. Having no future themselves, those infected with AIDS cease to think of the future at all.

Despite the pettiness of many of those faced with an early death, two characters, both infected with AIDS, find solace in each other’s love. Of course, they, like all of the other infected villagers, eventually die painful deaths.

Although the author, Yan Lianke, does not end the tale with much if any hope, he does write the story well, weaving poetry throughout and using repetition in a way I’d not previously seen in a novel. The beauty of the poetry somewhat relieves, though in no way diminishes, the horror of the story.

In addition to being well-written and engaging, this book illustrates the real and continuing problem of disease spread via blood-selling in China. And, as the novel shows, the repercussions of HIV continue for decades after an initial outbreak because the virus takes so long to make itself known. Even were blood-selling eradicated today, families, especially poorer ones, would suffer for generations. Indeed, one man interviewed by the BBC in 2001 was in a very unfortunate predicament: his son sold blood to make ends meet and contracted AIDS, in response, the man spent all of his money on medicine leaving nothing with which to send his soon-to-be-fatherless grandchildren to school.

Further, according to a ChinaDaily article from September of last year, the Chinese government banned blood selling in 1998, but the practice continues in the guise of compensated “donation.” Rather than being paid for their blood, the poor and desperate receive a “nutrition fee” and “traffic fare.” The government could crack down harder on blood “donations,” but the real problem is oppressive poverty; for the fictional characters of Ding Village as well as many real people in China—as well as the United States—selling blood is a last ditch effort, something one does out of need. While clean blood for transfusions is an important aspect of modern medicine, taking advantage of the poor is morally questionable and, without strict regulations, dangerous for everyone. However, until the poor are less desperate, those that stand to profit will easily take advantage of them.

Secondly, this novel illustrates important aspects of human nature: Ding Hui becomes single-minded in his pursuit of money, not only is he largely to blame for the spread of AIDS in his county and, as he sold blood wherever it was wanted, in his country, he then profits from the government’s feeble efforts to help those infected with AIDS. Faced with their own deaths, the villagers stop caring for each other and the future of the uninfected, instead, they care only for coffins and “face.” Indeed, one of the only instances of solidarity exhibited by the villagers once the AIDS epidemic is in full force, occurs when a young man, infected but not yet fully sick, is able to marry an uninfected woman because the inhabitants of Ding Village assured her and her mother that the man in question was not sick.

Although literature often examines the short comings of humanity, it is only by constantly reevaluating ourselves and exploring the possible repercussions of our actions that we can avoid becoming monsters. Dream of Ding Village is an excellently executed reminder of the negative consequences of putting financial gain first as well as the long-lasting results of selfishness: when we put ourselves first—whether because we stand to profit or because we have no chance of ever profiting again—we risk robbing not only our neighbors, but our posterity.

14 July 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This is the seventeenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.

One of the best selling points for Yan Lianke’s Serve the People! is the quote on the back from the Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau:

This novel slanders Mao Zedong, the Army, and is overflowing with sex. . . . Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it, or report on it.

This kind of negative attention is a publisher’s dream . . . As explained in the flap copy, when this book was written in 2005, it was deemed “unpublishable by China’s state-run publishing houses.” Thanks to the interview, this quickly became a cult classic.

Sexual insinuations in the jacket copy doesn’t hurt either:

Serve the People! is a beautifully told, wickedly daring story about the forbidden love affair between Liu Lian, the young, pretty wife of a powerful division commander in Communist China, and her household’s lowly servant, Wu Dawang. Left to idle at home while her husband furthers the revolution, Liu Lian establishes a rule for her orderly: whenever the household’s wooden “Serve the People!” sign is removed from its usual place on the dinner talbe and placed elsewhere, Wu Dawang is to stop what he is doing to attend to her needs upstairs.

E. J. wrote a long review of this back some time ago, ending with:

And much of that first two-thirds feels pretty familiar, which left me wanting Lianke to just get Wu Dawang and Liu Lian together, so he could get on with the rest of his story. Anyone who has seen a romantic comedy and gets to the part when misunderstandings-or-outside-forces-are-temporarily-driving-
the-lovers-apart-which-makes-their-eventual-coupling-more-
satisfying knows what I’m talking about, but in this case with a lot more sex once they get together.

Once he gets them together however, Lianke’s story does take on a more elegiac and, to me at least, far more interesting tone. And the book does have a few powerful moments toward the end, when the current of criticism that runs through the plot—how constricting these communist slogans, once internalized, have become, and how they are used and twisted by all and sundry just to get by—affects the plot and the characters most directly and more deeply.

27 February 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Serve the People! is the story of Wu Dawang, a peasant from the countryside who has joined the Red Army, and who, after distinguishing himself in his division as a politically proper soldier, has achieved the relatively privileged rank of Sergeant of the Catering Squad. Wu Dawang is assigned to be General Orderly for the Division Commander, meaning he keeps house and cooks meals for the Division Commander and his wife, the alluring 32-year-old military nurse, Liu Lian.

Shortly after the opening of the novel, the Division Commander, an older man whose first marriage ended in divorce, takes an extended leave from Wu Dawang, Liu Lian, and his Division—his presence is required at a military conference, where he will spend the next two months drafting plans to modernize and streamline the Red Army.

While he’s away, Liu Lian, lonely, bored, married to an older, impotent man, attempts to seduce Wu Dawang, but Wu Dawang’s sense of military order and thoughts of his wife and child—who remain in the countryside awaiting Wu Dawang’s promotion to officialdom and life in a Chinese city—cause him to hesitate:

Wu Dawang also decided not to go straight to bed. He wound his way around those companionable clusters of drinkers to the deserted, southernmost end of the ground. There he sat, alone. To any casual observer, this deep moonlight contemplation might have suggested an inquiry into the fundamentals of existence, into the ethics of love, desire and revolution, into the conflict between honour and self-interest, into duty and hierarchy, human nature and animal instinct. But in reality these thorny abstractions slipped by him like smoke, leaving behind only two considerations: one, Liu Lian’s extraordinarily seductive body; and two, the probable consequences of entering into the kind of relations that she seemed to be proposing, and the Division Commander finding out. The simple but powerful blade of his mind stripped the issues of all complexity, leaving only these two principal contradictions. Meditating on the former, he was lost in blissful daydreams; thoughts of the latter called up the terrifying presentiment that just around the next corner of his life an execution ground awaited.

Eventually, Wu Dawang gives in to Liu Lian’s advances, and they begin a torrid affair that threatens not only Wu Dawang’s life and Liu Lian’s marriage, but the entire Division as well.

Yan Lianke’s book has caused something of a scandal in China. Serve the People! was originally published in a magazine, where it drew the attention of the Central Propaganda Bureau, who demanded that the entire print run, some 30,000 copies, be recalled and destroyed; the book has since been banned there, as have several other of Lianke’s novels. This translation even uses that fact as a marketing hook, printing some text from the Central Propaganda Bureau’s ruling—it “slanders Mao Zedong, the Army and is overflowing with sex”—on the back of the book.

The novel definitely does all of those things, and you can see why, were you a member of a censorship board in China, it might be banned. However, much of the impact of what was scandalous in its original context—the sex, poking fun at Mao Zedong thought, Mao Zedong’s iconography, the Cultural Revolution, and the naive sloganeering of the average Red Army soldier, and Liu Lian and Wu Dawang’s abuse of the “Serve the People” slogan—is lost on Western readers. These are things, after all, which aren’t sacred cows for any of us. So, once the glamorous glow of the forbidden and titillating is stripped away, what’s left of Serve the People! is an apparently straightforward story of forbidden love, for at least the first two-thirds of the novel, anyway.

And much of that first two-thirds feels pretty familiar, which left me wanting Lianke to just get Wu Dawang and Liu Lian together, so he could get on with the rest of his story. Anyone who has seen a romantic comedy and gets to the part when misunderstandings-or-outside-forces-are-temporarily-driving-
the-lovers-apart-which-makes-their-eventual-coupling-more-
satisfying knows what I’m talking about, but in this case with a lot more sex once they get together.

Once he gets them together however, Lianke’s story does take on a more elegiac and, to me at least, far more interesting tone. And the book does have a few powerful moments toward the end, when the current of criticism that runs through the plot—how constricting these communist slogans, once internalized, have become, and how they are used and twisted by all and sundry just to get by—affects the plot and the characters most directly and more deeply.

Serve the People!
by Yan Lianke
Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell
Paperback, 216 pages, $14.00
978-0-8021-7044-6
Black Cat, a paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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