In 2010, before I visited my late father's native village in China's central province of Henan, a friend recommended that I read Yan Lianke's books to prepare for my trip. Yan, one of China's eminent and most controversial novelists and satirists — many of his works are banned for his unflattering portrait of contemporary China — grew up in Henan. His stories are mostly set in what my father used to call the ancient land of the Yellow River Civilization.
Historically, Henan was ravaged by poverty from flooding, war, overpopulation and lack of arable land. In recent years, as China follows the Party's mantra, "To get rich is glorious," Henan has made a name for being "overly creative" in its relentless pursuit of wealth. During the last three years, many of the country's most outlandish and absurd get-rich-fast schemes have come from there. Consider: The majority of China's fake drugs and liquor are manufactured in Henan. In 2010, a drug company was closed down for using recycled cooking oil scooped up from sewage to make a nutritional supplement for children. In 2011, the famed Shaolin Monastery, a popular Buddhist holy site known for its Chinese martial arts, teamed up with a Hong Kong tourist company and went public in two of China's stock markets. The abbot, known as the "CEO monk," has an MBA. He was quoted as saying that he intended to run the monastery like a corporation.
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Needless to say, these real-life stories provide endless sources of materials for Yan's satire.
When I went to Henan in 2010, I brought along the Chinese version of Yan's "Lenin's Kisses," which was recently released in English. It is a funny yet dark satirical novel about a fictional village called Liven, nestled among a chain of mountains called Balou. All of Liven's inhabitants are physically disabled: deaf, mute, blind or one-legged. The arable land and mild climate enable the villagers to live self-sufficient, harmonious lives until a devastating summer blizzard hits the region.
Seven days of thick snow destroy the crops, plunging the villagers into destitution and despair. County Chief Liu arrives to rescue the people of Liven from the unprecedented natural disaster — and to boost his political career. Liu hatches a scheme that he promises will revitalize the local economy and generate an unlimited amount of wealth: He decides to purchase Vladimir Lenin's corpse from Russia and install it in a mausoleum on the top of the Spiritual Mountain. At a time when Communism is still China's dominant ideology, Liu is certain that Lenin's corpse will attract millions of tourists from across the country.
His idea is applauded by his colleagues, but no one knows how to fund this endeavor. County Chief Liu stumbles upon a solution: At a post-harvest festival, Liu discovers that many of the disabled villagers possess special skills, such as a blind girl's acute listening skills, a one-eyed woman's fast needle threading and a deaf person who tolerates firecrackers on his ears. Liu convinces the villagers to organize a touring performance troupe to showcase their talents. As expected, the performance troupe becomes a huge commercial success. However, a calamity soon befalls the villagers, robbing them of every hard-earned penny and their dreams of bringing Lenin to China.
The conceit of this satirical novel — purchasing Lenin's corpse to boost local tourism — may seem exaggerated and farfetched, but if one thinks of the CEO monk at the Shaolin Monastery, it no longer feels so far removed from reality.
When I first read the novel during my 2010 trip to Henan, China was in the throes of a campaign to glorify Mao Zedong. As unbridled consumerism threatened to upend traditional and inculcated value systems, China's leadership dug Mao up to restore people's faith in the Communist Party. As a result, "red tourism" boomed. The public flocked to the Mao Mausoleum in Beijing, where the former leader's body was on full display like Lenin's in Moscow, and to different Communist holy sites where Mao used to live and lead the revolution. "Lenin's Kisses" testifies to something Soviet dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich once said: "Reality and satire are the same."
Yan's book, with its rich realistic elements and vivid use of local dialects, provided me with deep insights into my father's native land, which I hardly knew. During my weeklong trip, I visited villages that reminded me of Liven and encountered peasants and local officials who resembled the characters in "Lenin's Kisses."
This is no coincidence. Yan was born in a small, poor village like Liven in 1958. At age 16 he dropped out of high school to help his family with farming. In 1978, Yan joined the army, where he started writing books in his spare time. Like the 2012 Nobel laureate Mo Yan, Yan's sweeping stories are largely drawn from tales that he had heard from his fellow villagers or from his own investigations. His works parodied, with biting humor, the absurdities of contemporary Chinese society.
The English version of "Lenin's Kisses," masterfully translated by Carlos Rojas, offers Western readers a unique perspective on rural China. With the broad and exaggerated stroke of a caricaturist, Yan portrays several memorable characters, one of which is the deluded County Chief Liu. An egomaniac, Liu nurtures a fantasy of lording over the villagers like an emperor, with thousands of subjects kneeling down to express their gratitude to him. In his office, he secretly places his own portrait along with those of world-renowned Communist leaders such as Karl Marx, Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao. He even plans to make a crystal coffin for himself and place it next to that of Lenin's in the mausoleum so he could be worshipped like Lenin after his own death. The principled Grandma Mao Zhi, a former soldier of the Red Army and the de facto leader of Liven, serves as a counterpoint to Liu; the two battle for control over Liven's soul.
The book's nonlinear narratives and the unique format at the beginning (sections of the texts are in the form of footnotes) can be confusing, even for a bilingual reader. In addition, some descriptions, such as those about the performance troupes, tend to be wordy and repetitive. But overall, I found "Lenin's Kisses" hard to put down when I read the English version again. I found myself giggling on a recent 'El' ride, confounding fellow passengers.
Yan has been called "the master of the School of Absurdities in Chinese literature" by his peers in China. "No matter what novels you write," said Yan during a recent interview with the Chinese media, "no fictional stories can match the complexities, richness and absurdities in real life."
Wenguang Huang, author of "The Little Red Guard," is a Chicago-based journalist and writer.
By Yan Lianke, Grove, 499 pages, $27Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times