Book review: The Four Books - biting satire offers some hope

A ray of hope in the resilient human spirit shines through a tale of oppression and treachery

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm

The Four Books
by Yan Lianke
Grove Press

Deep in the Chinese countryside, far from the puppeteer's hand, a band of characters in a depressing labour camp suffers through a slow, grinding loss of human dignity. They are starving, thanks to Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward, and their only hope for survival is to pander to their mindless masters.

It's based on a true story, as Mao's reckless and ill-conceived economic reforms killed about 36 million people. But author Yan Lianke is telling a fictionalised version in The Four Books, taking the reality of degradation, starvation and humiliation, and twisting them into a satirical tale about abuse of power and the vicious survivalist psychology of people who have been robbed of their moral and intellectual compass.

In order to push China into becoming a world superpower, the villagers of the 99th district of a massive re-education compound are expected to produce record grain crops and steel to catch up with the economic success of England and the US. The fiction is derived from Yan's push into the themes of madness, suffering and the loss of independent thought.

The Four Books is filled with brilliantly chilling metaphors. The main character hacks at his flesh to nourish the wheat with his blood so that it will grow the biggest heads in the region, and thereby win favour and eventual freedom. The constant search for approval is a theme that runs strongly throughout the novel.

"Everyone was confident this piece of steel would surely win first place at the provincial competition, and that the following spring it would represent the province in the national capital. They were confident that when the Child returned from the provincial seat, a large group from Re-Ed would be permitted to return home."

The complete and wilful denial of reality in Yan's story sounds ludicrous unless the reader is familiar with the recorded history of the time, or the Chinese government's more current forays into make-believe on issues such as social unrest, environmental degradation or economic predictions. The competition to "report" the highest predicted grain production easily translates into the non-fiction world of the bald-faced lies Beijing continues to perpetuate.

"The award for those reporting one thousand jin was an iron shovel, and for those reporting fifteen hundred jin the award was a shovel and a hoe. Those reporting more than two thousand jin would also receive a flashlight and a pair of rubber rain boots and for every additional hundred jin over three thousand they would receive another foot of muslin fabric. As a result, everyone started reporting like crazy."

I’ve always dreamed of being able to write without any regard for publication

Still, Yan pushes certain images and allegories to the breaking point. The constant counting of production and supply, while no doubt realistic, becomes belaboured and causes the story to lose its forward momentum at certain points. After the third or fourth extensive passage counting the jin of grain and steel, the number of li travelled, and blossoms and stars hoarded, the reader's eye is tempted to take multi-page leaps forward.

But the allusions Yan creates in The Four Books point to the broader experience of human suffering, which is enhanced by the lack of proper names for his characters. He creates the Musician and her secret lover, the Scholar, along with the Theologian, Jurist and Physician. The Child is the pre-adolescent supervisor of the camp, while the main character is simply the Author - seen in both first and third person. All others are the criminals, a subversive trick that successfully casts a shadow of doubt upon them in the reader's mind.

The title refers to the banned books the Author finds in the camp, reminding the reader that this place is filled with people who have committed intellectual crimes against communist ideology. Contrasting with those books is the novel the Author is writing: he has been promised his freedom if he writes about the infringements he observes in the camp, and his masters dictate the title of the book - Criminal Minds - as well as how many pages it should contain.

This surreal imitation of real life reminds one of George Orwell's 1984, with the ever watchful eyes of those in power an encouragement for the villagers to inform on dissident behaviour in the hope of earning freedom to return to their homes and families.

Much is made of the reward system used by the Child to entice obedience and higher production from the criminals. He controls both the supply of food and rewards, while he himself is manipulated by "higher ups" who promise a trip to Beijing if he can push his criminals to produce more steel and bigger crops of wheat.

"Five small blossoms could be exchanged for one medium-sized one, and five medium-sized blossoms could be exchanged for a fist-sized pentagonal star. A hundred and twenty-five small blossoms, accordingly, could be exchanged for five pentagonal stars. With these five stars, someone could be set free, and the world would become an open expanse."

The compound is located in the central plains just south of the Yellow River, where the soil is silty and of poor quality, creating a grey wasteland where the bright red colour of the blossoms further enhances their power.

Yan enjoys delving into the grotesque world of physical suffering, whether describing the grunting thrusts of a military man taking sexual pleasure from a starving criminal or the slow decay of bodies due to overwork and poor nutrition. He is brilliant in bringing to life the sadistic horror, robberies and denunciations caused by political misguidance. Yan carries this tale to the very bitter end, when bad weather and famine lead the criminals to cannibalism, when they'll steal and sell anything they can to put something in their bellies.

Yan - winner of last year's Franz Kafka Prize and a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize - is both one of China's most esteemed authors as well as one of its most censored. He spent two decades as a military propaganda writer, but after the publication of The Joy of Living, a story about a village of disabled peasants, he was asked to leave the army. His 2006 novel Dream of Ding Village, about impoverished peasants who contract Aids via illegal blood selling, won the Man Asian Literary Prize but was banned on the mainland.

Yan wrote The Four Books for the overseas reader, abandoning any hope that it would be published in China even before he began writing it. "I've always dreamed of being able to write without any regard for publication. The Four Books is [at least partially] an attempt to write recklessly and without concern for the prospect of getting published," he says in the foreword.

The translation, by Carlos Rojas, a professor at Duke University, feels clumsy at times, but can't really be confirmed without reading the novel in its original Chinese. The frequent repetitions do not translate well, such as these two short paragraphs.

"The sun went down.

Dusk arrived."

While this story has enough oppression and treachery to leave the reader disgusted, it also shows the love and camaraderie that shine through when humans are pushed to the limit. The occasional helping hand, the shared handful of stolen fried soybeans, the extra blossom given to a criminal at the bottom of a barrel - all give hope in a world of despair.

The Four Books captures an aspect of Chinese life which is hard to imagine and understand for a foreigner, and Yan's skilful depiction reaffirms why he is China's most heralded and censored modern writer.

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