The Explosion Chronicles
by Yan Lianke

Chatto & Windus

Remind me again – why do we read fiction? Putting aside the probability that television is telling stories better than anyone else, that cinema at least provides an audience, that video games turn readers into players, books themselves can feel a little last millennium.

Moreover, as 2016 proved, life itself is giving litera­ture a run for its money when it comes to telling tales. If Donald Trump didn’t actually exist, then a Don DeLillo, a Martin Amis (or a Nigel Farage) would surely have to invent him.

Nowhere are the lines separating reality from fiction more blurred than in China, whose recent past, as Yan Lianke acknowledges in a pointed afterword to The Explosion Chronicles, very nearly beggars belief: “As the entire world stares incredulously at contemporary China’s miraculous transformation, the nation’s authors feel they have reached a point where literature can no longer directly reflect reality.” Nor, Yan continues, are these limitations confined to Chinese writers. “Even the ideologies and techniques associated with world literature would emit a collective sigh of despair if confronted with China’s extraordinary events.”

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Yan’s response is “mythorealist literary practice – which, is to say, a literature that uses an innovative set of techniques to reveal an otherwise invisible region beneath perceptible reality”. The explanation sounds at once vaguely grandiose and somewhat obvious. Isn’t revealing “an otherwise invisible region beneath perceptible reality” what all good novels aim to do, whether they are by Yu Hua or Jane Austen?

Yan isn’t finished yet. Mythorealism follows “a spectral path of ghosts and spirits […] in order to explode reality’s façade”. Again, this doesn’t particularly clear things up. A more concise guide to the theory is Yan’s admiration for Gabriel García Márquez, whose magical realism seems to anticipate many of mytho­realism’s precepts.

A better explanation is The Explosion Chronicles itself, which, as Yan’s afterword has hinted, narrates the sudden, disarming, wondrous, profound and curious transformation of China. The locus is the fictitious village of Explosion, in the Balou Mountains of Henan province, a region that is the setting for many of Yan’s books.

“The history of Explosion Village replicated in miniature the pain and prosperity undergone by the nation itself.” After centuries in which dynastic shifts leave the land relatively untouched, Explosion survives Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution before Deng Xiaoping’s policies transform it slowly into a thriving city. As its name suggests, Explosion is by turns an unstoppable phenomenon and a destructive force, a social miracle that teeters on the brink between triumph and disaster.

Throughout its various incarnations, Explosion is essentially divided between three families: the predominant Kongs, and the subordinate (if not subservient) Zhus and Chens. At the centre of most
of the explosiveness is Kong Mingliang. One of four brothers, he is charged by his father (Kong Dongde) with seeking his fortune by leaving his birthplace and following the first object he encounters.

While his siblings follow their own fates by travelling along different axes of the compass, Mingliang’s path brings him back to Explosion, where he meets Zhu Ying, daughter of the rival house whose ambition for wealth and status matches his own.

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Yan’s vision of mythorealism begins slowly to be realised. Paternal challenges, quests to fulfil destinies, star-crossed lovers: these are the foundations of myths from China to Greece to Rome and back again.

Just as important is Yan’s prose, which for the most part is as transparent as the ancient texts (Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, for instance) that provide one model for the narrative.

The writing has its satirical intent, too. The village’s initial power surge is theft: villagers leap aboard passing trains and empty the carriages of their wares. This is achieved at no small loss of life, and Mingliang soothes his grieving populace with prominent shrines to the dead and the promise of future riches. Later, prostitution, vote rigging, patronage and corruption play their own parts in Explosion’s history.

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In harmony with the mythological underpinning, Yan constructs a lyrical pattern of symbolism drawing on traditional imagery: the seasons, the weather, animals, colour and, most frequently, the language of flowers. When Mingliang’s early successes win a visit from the county mayor, the people “felt a surge of pride and smiled like autumn chrysanthemum blossoms”.

The Explosion Chronicles asks probing questions about the past (how it is remembered, distorted and memorialised) and how this instability affects the present. The interplay of the material and the fantastic does not portray China’s economic and social miracle as fanciful, or not entirely. Rather it worries about how such success stories are constructed and interpreted, how they convince and also mislead. What seems frankly bizarre one minute (a man being spat on to death, for example) can later be made to appear like fate in action. And vice versa.

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Yan the novelist is supreme­ly alive to language’s role in the process of narration and/or fabrication. The villa­gers who die robbing passing trains are elegised as martyrs while the word “steal” is outlawed. In Explosion’s only electoral debate, Ying destroys the more verbose Mingliang without saying more than 10 words; she simply hands out money instead. Moments later, language’s power is restored when an announcer declares Mingliang the winner, despite all logic pointing to precisely the opposite result.

All this would be merely intelligent and worthy if The Explosion Chronicles wasn’t also so readable, funny and dramatic. Its big ideas are fleshed out with characters at once confounding and sympathetic, at the mercy of the world’s grand narratives and also a part of them.

Yan is not necessarily breaking new ground, despite his protestations towards innovation. Using the fortunes of a small town to explore broader national and inter­national ideas has been exploited by everyone from Virgil to George Eliot to García Márquez. Yan may not have reinvented the literary wheel, but he has fashioned one that rolls smoothly, power­fully and with a particularly Chinese design. The Explosion Chronicles is enough to remind one why we read fiction in the first place.