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.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

Serve the People!
By Yan Lianke
Translated by Julia Lovell
Reviewed by E.J. Van Lanen
ISBN:
$
The Antiquarian
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faverón Patriau
Reviewed by P.T. Smith

Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking.. . .

Read More >

Elsewhere
Elsewhere by Eliot Weingerber (ed.)
Reviewed by Grant Barber

What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .

Read More >

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang
Reviewed by Chris Iacono

Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .

Read More >

Sankya
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin
Reviewed by Kseniya Melnik

When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .

Read More >

Stalin is Dead
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .

Read More >

Paradises
Paradises by Iosi Havilio
Reviewed by Andrea Reece

Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.

The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .

Read More >

Two Crocodiles
Two Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky; Felisberto Hernández
Reviewed by Sara Shuman

This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The. . .

Read More >