27 March 2015
The Four Books

Yan Lianke is employed by the Chinese government as a writer and yet almost all his novels have been banned in China, by the same government that pays him, immediately on publication. Presumably this is a case of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, but to my mind it also seems a perfect illustration of the Kafkaesque contortions of the Chinese state.

Unlike so many Chinese writers who have been effectively forced into exile in the West in order to work freely, Yan Lianke still works and lives in his home country. He is a highly political writer. He talks with apparent lightness of living in a place where the only thing you see on the TV that you can believe is true is the date displayed at the bottom of the screen. I think most of us in Europe and America find this hard to imagine. That’s if we even try to at all.

Yan Lianke writes about difficult subjects. His novel Dream of Ding Village exposes the blood-selling scandal of the 1990s which resulted in whole villages being wiped out by AIDS. In Lenin’s Kisses he satirises a get-rich-quick scam involving a village of disabled people who form a grotesque travelling circus to raise money to buy Lenin’s tomb from a cash-strapped Russia. His most recent book, The Four Books, is set in a prison camp during the Great Famine, one of China’s most controversial periods, in which between 20 and 43 million died.  The imprisoned are intellectuals who are undergoing Re-education, to reinforce their Communist thinking and ideals. 

In charge of the prisoners is the Child, who dreams up more and more draconian rules. His favourite punishment is confiscating the treasured books of the inmates; he sets up a complicated system of control where each is rewarded for informing on the others. But he in turn is being controlled by the Higher-ups, who have promised him the trip of a lifetime to Beijing, where he will see all the most important Party sights. In return, the Child must organise his men to perform tasks including growing an unimaginable amount of wheat and smelting an impossible amount of corn. And then the famine arrives and the camp turns into a vision of hell. 

This is tough stuff. And the same is true for all Yan Lianke’s books. And yet Yan Lianke brings a lightness and humanity to these subjects, making them readable, bearable, essential. He uses satire, universal symbolism, beautiful imagery (in The Four Books the prisoners are rewarded in bouquets of red paper blossoms and golden stars) and simple, rhythmic language to sooth the reader’s way. 

For his contribution to international literature Yan Lianke has won an array of the most significant prizes all over the world. Last year he won the Franz Kafka Prize, whose previous winners include Vaclav Havel, John Banville, Harold Pinter, Haruki Murakami and Philip Roth. He is a proud teller of often dangerous truths. We in the West probably no longer ‘need’ literature in this urgent way. But we surely need to listen to those who do.

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