Book review: Yu Hua's The Seventh Day - grim satire on China's poor
In his latest novel, the Chinese author shows that, in death as in life, there's neither justice nor equality
In The Seventh Day we meet narrator Yang Fei in the land of the dead. Yang is a 41-year-old Mr Average: a man with no children, little money and few prospects. He leaves his bedsit and walks aimlessly "in the barren and murky city". It is the first day of his death. But with no one to bury him, and no one to mourn him, he is consigned to a restless state roaming among the spirits of the fallen.
During Yang's seven days of wandering, he meets the other people in his life who have also died and, like him, can find no peace. There's his ex-wife, a beautiful and ambitious businesswoman who slit her wrists following a corruption scandal, to the down-to-earth family who ran the local noodle restaurant. Along with Yang, they perished in a gas explosion in the kitchen.
Yu Hua uses this conceit - at times both playful and unsettling - to explore the chaos of modern China. In the process he upturns all that is wrong in a country where lust for money and power has upended common decency. But while The Seventh Day is desperately dark, it is also darkly funny.
This is best illustrated in the opening chapters in which Yang checks into the cremation clinic, having made makeshift burial clothes for himself out of old pyjamas. In the waiting room, the dead tarry for their turn. Yang is given a number and told to bide his time. But even in death not all are equal. Yang has no resting place: he is in a Chinese version of purgatory. Others, the lucky, have family who can scrape together enough cash to bury them.
Meanwhile, the wealthy have made arrangements for extravagant burials designed to both guarantee luck in the afterlife and save face in the world they leave behind. As one of the soon-to-be-cremated moans: "Dying is such an expensive business these days!"
In the VIP section - one step removed from the plastic chairs where Yang sits - the rich compare their pricey cinerary urns. Purchased for tens of thousands of yuan, they have pompous names such as Sandalwood Precincts, Immortal Crane Manor and Phoenix Castle. Their plots sit in auspicious locations on mountain peaks facing the sea encircled by clouds or in peaceful forest glades.
Yet even the wealthy must bow to power. When the dead mayor enters, he is ushered through in hushed silence; only he can skip the queue. Yu manages to adeptly convey the pontifical grandiose of those in office while pointing a finger at their bombastic ridiculousness. Surely, in death, this haughtiness is meaningless?
Balancing these scenes are flashbacks to Yang's past. Born unexpectedly in a train toilet, Yang falls through the toilet hole. He is lost to his mother (seemingly forever), but is rescued by a poor train employee. The kind man, though single and in his early 20s, becomes his father, raising the baby known as "the boy a train gave birth to".
If Yang's beginning is absurd, the relationship with his adopted father is one of heartwarming authenticity. This is a man of no means, but whose humanity knows no bounds. At one point Yang's father attempts to abandon him at an orphanage at the request of his fiancée, who objects to the child. But he can't do it: he ditches the girl and swears to stay alone forever closeted in his two-member family team. Growing up, the humiliation of poverty is never far away. When Yang reaches his teens, his birth mother finally finds him against the odds. His father, desperately proud to show off his boy, withdraws his entire savings, some 3,000 yuan, to buy Yang a new suit to wear when he meets his mother.
He takes Yang to the town's biggest shopping mall, six storeys high, and marches straight to the foreign brand floor. There he is shocked that a tie costs 280 yuan - that is, before Yang corrects him. It is actually 2,800 yuan. His father's quiet shame, as he admits defeat, is painful to read.
Sadly, the same emotional depth is not present for large swathes of the novel, which seems to be a vehicle for Yu to crowbar in news stories. Many of the dead are casualties of a surging, uncaring China that crushes its own people: a boy sells his kidney for cash; a couple are buried alive during a forced demolition of their home; a man is wrongly executed by the state.
The motherly Li Yuezhen is knocked off her feet by a speeding BMW, and then run over by a truck and delivery van. She had previously come across 27 fetuses in the river, snagged on the weeds, floating like rotten fish. These are the aborted babies of China's one-child policy who the hospital uncaringly terms "medical refuse". Li's story, in particular, seems to have been inspired by the real-life tragic death of two-year-old Yue Yue, who was run over by two vehicles in 2011; 18 passersby ignored her as she lay bleeding in the street. Yet, as horrific as this is, Yu's treatment of such issues feels forced and heavy-handed: a litany of abuses does not automatically add up to convincing literature.
In 2011, Yu published his masterful China in Ten Words, his first work of non-fiction to appear in English. As with The Seventh Day, it is hung on a clever conceit - in this case not seven days of death but 10 words. Each chapter, hinged on a word such as "Disparity", "Leader" or "Reading", explores an area of the country's history as seen through the author's own life lens.
China in Ten Words makes for honest, raw reading - the chapter in which books are burned and banned during the Cultural Revolution (an era in which Yu grew up) is particularly hard-hitting. The Seventh Day, by contrast, never quite hits the mark. Characters are often reduced to totems: like apparitions, they seem to fade as you read them.
This is made up for, partly, by Yu's poetic language, excellently translated by Allan Barr. Yang's peasant relatives, when they learn of his adopted father's probable death, use the backs of their hands to wipe away their tears - "perhaps because their fingers and palms were so rough". When a man is tortured by the police he remembers that the eyes hurt the most. He concedes: "Tears are salty, and they can be as painful as a needle stabbing."
If Yu does succeed in The Seventh Day, it is in showing a confused society in which the government casts aside its citizens like rubbish and in which people often treat each other no better. For this, one story stands out among the others. In the eerie Land of the Unburied - where skeletons play chess, trees are loaded with fruit, and heart-shaped leaves shiver like "the rhythm of hearts beating" - Yang meets the young and pretty Mouse Girl.
Mouse Girl is a member of the mouse tribe, the poor and the disenfranchised who huddle in underground warrens beneath the city. There she lives with her equally penniless boyfriend, although she dreams of bigger things and wants to join a brothel to earn good wages. "When the iPhone 3 came out, my girlfriend [at the brothel] got one right away, and as soon as the iPhone 3s came out, she immediately switched to that. Last year she exchanged it for an iPhone 4, and now she's using an iPhone 4s," she says.
To placate her, her boyfriend promises her an iPhone. It turns out to be a fake. Frustrated and furious and determined to make him pay, she stands on a building ready to jump to her death.
Rather than help, vendors gather below to make the most of the watching crowd. One sells food, another hawks cheap sunglasses so that punters can gaze up into the sky and see the action without hurting their eyes. One onlooker mutters to another: "Why does she want to die?" His friend replies: "She's tired of living, I guess."
Little wonder so many in The Seventh Day seem relieved to be among the dead.