President Xi Jinping’s slogan of national optimism, “The Chinese Dream,” may have been appropriated for his own advantage, but it seems to be the writers of his country who have been making the most of it. Novelists like Ma Jian (especially his recent “China Dream”) are producing sly and savage works of international literature, exploring — and exploding — the implications of China’s recent accelerated modernization program and its global economic ambitions under the leadership of Xi. Perhaps to Xi’s consternation, these writers are not censoring their presentations of the dream’s dark side.
But few writers have utilised an array of literary effects to dramatize these realities more fully than has China’s most prolific and controversial author, Yan Lianke, winner of the 2014 Franz Kafka Prize and a two-time finalist for the Man Booker International Prize. He’s also the winner of the Lu Xun Prize and the Lao She Award, and an author considered a likely recipient of the Nobel.
Yan is attuned to the implications on the human psyche of accelerated modernization and rapid globalization. He spent decades writing in the propaganda department of the Communist Party of China, while also serving in the People’s Liberation Army, a period of time that, one imagines, served as an extended apprenticeship and an indispensable education for the writer.
In his newly translated “The Day the Sun Died,” winner of the prestigious Dream of the Red Chamber Award in 2016,” Yan skillfully renders — both realistically and surrealistically — the nightmarish story of a small village in central China where, over the course of one night, its inhabitants suffer catastrophically from an inexplicable plague of somnambulism — or “dreamwalking,” as Carlos Rojas makes clear in his subtle and superb translation of Yan’s dark fable.
Effortlessly blending metaphor and allegory, symbolism and satire, Yan has crafted a distinct literary work of dystopian satire, a blend of bruising bureaucratic critique with a sly postmodern pastiche of realism, absurdism and the grotesque.
There are currently two conflicting language systems in China. One belongs to the state, the other to ordinary people.
One evening, “on the sixth day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar,” a day so hot “that the earth’s bones were bending and breaking,” the residents of Gaotian, a small village nestled in the Funiu Mountains in China’s Central Plains, begin to emerge one by one from their homes at sunset, dreamwalking. At first they go about their daily chores; one man goes out to the field to harvest wheat, his eyes “half-closed, as though he were falling asleep.” But quickly things turn darker; the man begins muttering self-deprecations at being a cuckold and seizes a steel pipe, stalking off in his zombie-like state in search of his wife’s lover, whereupon “with a single blow” he shatters that lover’s skull.
As the evening descends into darker night, the entire village descends into chaos: a drowning occurs and a hanging — or were they suicides? — followed by more murder, looting and theft, rape and incest, a woman walks around half-naked, a couple has sex in public; there is more violence, until finally a massive, marauding band of dreamwalkers attempt to take over the town, threatening to ignite an apocalyptic “murderous war:”
“The sounds of chasing and killing descended on the town like a thunderstorm, and the entire world seemed to have descended into a storm of people fleeing and chasing one another. The entire world was engulfed in the sound of screams and murderous beatings. … In this way, the pursuers became the pursued.”
Witnessing all this horror is our narrator, 14-year-old Li Niannian, whom everyone calls “Stupid Niannian,” but whose innocence and naiveté (not to mention his immunity to deep sleep and dreamwalking, make him the perfect person to relate the events of this single sinister night. It is Niannian and his family — his mother, father and uncle — who become the protagonists of this “mythorealistic” drama (to use Yan’s own phrase in describing his work).
People’s memories and administered memories, people’s forgetfulness and administered forgetfulness are all determined by the state.
Niannian’s family is in the death business. His parents run the local funeral parlor and his uncle, the crematorium, whose furnace “had been used during the Great Leap Forward” (ironically, the Great Leap Forward was another program pushing rapid growth, begun by Chairman Mao in 1958, that oppressed the rural Chinese and brought about the starvation of approximately 40 million people during the Great Chinese Famine). Niannian’s family’s proximity to death puts them in direct contact with all those villagers who have lost family members and who prefer to bury their dead. It’s a violation of the rule prohibiting burials, a state-sponsored law meant to increase use of the land for harvesting wheat and which is pitched to the people as propaganda that Niannian’s uncle plasters up in posters all over the village: “In order to save land for our children and grandchildren, we are switching from burial to cremation. … The state has specified that if it discovers anyone has been secretly buried … the corpse will be disinterred and cremated.” Furthermore, the government will offer to pay anyone who informs on any secret burials taking place.
The plot thickens as rumors spread that Niannian’s father, Li Tianbao, may be an informer, thickening even further when we learn that Niannian’s uncle profits not only off of the cremations that take place after Li Tianbao informs on his neighbors, but also off the warm brown liquid that runs out of a burning body. His uncle calls it “corpse oil,” the sale of which is highly profitable. And once Li Tianbao discovers its value, even darker complications arise as he goes into a shady business deal with his wealthy brother-in-law. But soon Tianbao undergoes his own rapid transformation and spends much of the novel seeking redemption from his neighbors. And a bulk of the novel follows his quest to be forgiven. It is here where the cruelty, violence, chaos and confusion that he endures becomes an almost unbearable echo of the chaos that has been loosed upon Gaotian Village.
Add into all of this fearful fabulation that Yan Lianke himself is a character in the novel — not a realistic replica, more like a distorted funhouse reflection.
In his insightful Translator’s Note, Carlos Rojas compares “The Day the Sun Died” to “Ulysses,” both for its famous single-day narrative, but also for its famous comparison of history to a nightmare (one from which Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus is trying to awaken), equating history with sleep and dreams, rich, recurrent symbols at work in Yan’s novel. Yet Joyce’s “Dubliners” also serves as a useful comparison. Not only are the citizens of Joyce’s Dublin trapped in a state of paralysis, unable to act for themselves, but they are also miniature versions of larger sociopolitical systems, a relationship that Joyce scholars term “gnomonic,” Thus are Yan’s people and places similarly related to each other. In this way, Yan has brilliantly structured his novel in a series of concentric circles, moving from our narrator to his father to his uncle to his family and the village and county and town, and so forth, ultimately encompassing the entire world.
After you go to sleep at night you continue your thoughts from when you were awake, and try to carry out those thoughts in your dreams.
The novel is a tour de force of language control. Rojas has honored all of Yan’s vertiginous syntax, with its switchbacks and echoes, its rhythms and recursions, inducing a spell like a hypnotist’s watch swinging back and forth, lowering our defenses against its control. In that way, the novel enacts its own linguistic uprising against the language of the state over the language of ordinary people, becoming a combatant in the war between literature and propaganda.
In 2013, Yan wrote an editorial for the New York Times on what he called China’s state-sponsored amnesia: “Consequently, truth is buried. … Lies, meaningless words and pretentious-sounding blather become the official language used by the government, taught by our teachers and adopted by the world of art and literature. … There are currently two conflicting language systems in China. One belongs to the state, the other to ordinary people. … People’s memories and administered memories, people’s forgetfulness and administered forgetfulness are all determined by the state, transformed by a revolutionary tactic that has been systematically implemented.”
That word “implemented” appears again at a crucial point in “The Day the Sun Died.” Niannian tells us that “dreamwalking is really a result of the way in which whatever you are thinking about during the day becomes engraved in your bones, so that after you go to sleep at night you continue your thoughts from when you were awake, and try to carry out those thoughts in your dreams. This is similar to what bureaucrats call to implement, but in popular discourse we simply say to carry out.”
In this fable of myriad citizens sleepwalking under a repressive regime, readers will detect a critique at the complicated hybrid of communism and capitalism overtly and covertly practiced in China. Yet Yan’s vision — at once artful and gruesome, lyrical and lurid, empathetic and appalled — is craftier and more complicated than that.
The magnificence of Niannian’s narration is that it can be read on many levels. As a realist narrator, he reports first-hand the nightmare of the surreal somnambulism outbreak. But as a mythorealist holy-fool, he describes precisely those sociopolitical urgencies under which personal conscience and public responsibility must be examined — or ignored; he confronts serious moral questions of civic uprising or ignorant acquiescence; he lives out the philosophical dilemmas that not only Chinese citizens experience, but perhaps all of us might be experiencing in our current historic moment: a growing dread that we are living through a global night whose darkness is a darkness the sun can no longer illuminate.
But the power of literature is that it can illuminate, within the dark, chaotic mob, a single life story, revealing the individual repressed under such a massive collective system. What better way to dramatize such repression than through the expression of what lies buried in our dreams?
In novel after novel, Yan has explored, critiqued and satirized China’s dark history, and now in “The Day the Sun Died” he darkens the landscape even further to render the complicated chaos of China’s present moment. Whether it’s America in the 19th century or China in the 21st, the lesson of national campaigns is clear: sell the people on The Dream. As Fitzgerald wrote at the end of “The Great Gatsby,” that quintessential novel about the dark side of the American Dream: “It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. … And one fine morning — so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
In “The Day the Sun Died,” Yan’s daring and disturbing take on the Chinese Dream, one fine morning becomes one terribly dark night.
Grove Press, 342 pp., $26
Salvatore is books editor at the Brooklyn Rail and the author of the story collection “To Assume a Pleasing Shape.” He is an associate professor at the New School.