Reading Yan Lianke’s novels, you find that one phrase recurs again and again: “the higher-ups”. The term refers to members of the Chinese Communist party, from county secretaries to top government ministers. But Yan, China’s foremost literary satirist, invariably aligns himself with those at the bottom of the pile. “Writers should pay attention to the emotional lives of the masses,” he once wrote. “They are the majority, but our literature happened to have forgotten them.”
If that sounds rather worthy, Yan’s fiction is, in fact, arch and playful. Take Lenin’s Kisses (2004), a formally inventive novel about a provincial cadre who creates a travelling freak show to raise money to import a new tourist attraction from Russia — Lenin’s embalmed corpse. Or the Cultural Revolution-set Serve the People! (2005), the steamy tale of an affair between a military commander’s wife and a strapping young orderly. When the passion flags, the lovers turn each other on by smashing up Maoist knick-knacks.
“Sometimes the truth shines more brightly through a curtain of farce,” as Yan puts it in that novel. He deploys offbeat humour, anarchic set pieces and surreal imagery to shed new light on dark episodes from modern Chinese history. Dream of Ding Village (2006), for example, concerns the “Plasma Economy” of the 1990s, a botched state-led blood collection drive that left thousands of rural villagers infected with HIV. Unsurprisingly, given his choice of subject matter, Yan has a fraught relationship with the government, and his work often falls foul of the censors.
His newly translated The Four Books — which had a small print run in Hong Kong in 2010 but has never been published in mainland China — explores one of the 20th century’s ghastliest events. In 1958, Chairman Mao, impatient with China’s progress after nearly a decade of communist rule, launched the Great Leap Forward, a series of policies designed to boost the economy. Peasants were relocated to collective farms and forced to build backyard furnaces to smelt steel. The programme backfired spectacularly as the inefficient system left whole regions without food. An estimated 45m died in the resulting famine.
Yan’s brave, brilliant novel focuses on the 99th district, a labour camp for bourgeois “counter-revolutionaries” — known only by their former professions: Author, Musician, Scholar, and so on — who have been sent to the countryside to participate in the Great Leap. In charge is a young official nicknamed the Child, a strange mixture of despot and naïf — part Stalin, part Prince Myshkin — who exhorts the group to meet swingeing quotas imposed from above.
As in his previous work, Yan is interested in how morality collapses in extreme circumstances. The members of the 99th compete to survive, informing on each other to win the Child’s favour; collectivisation, in practice, means every man for himself. Punishments for misbehaviour range from the bizarre — one recidivist is forced to pull his trousers over his head and wander out into the night to count the stars — to the relatively prosaic: a bullet to the head. The Child, meanwhile, jostles with other cadres to win the approval of his own superiors at Orwellian regional assemblies.
Driven by fear, the 99th initially hits its targets but soon the smelting furnaces dwindle to embers and the over-harvested land stops yielding wheat. The prisoners are abandoned to their fate and begin to starve; they resort to eating tree bark, bird droppings and, ultimately, human flesh.
Yan’s prose, ably translated by Carlos Rojas, alternates between blank descriptions of the horror — “the ninety-ninth was bloated and listless, and periodically someone would die” — and extravagant symbolism: crucifixes, infernos, wheat sheaves mysteriously swollen with blood. It’s not exactly subtle but these Grand Guignol flourishes seem grimly appropriate.
The title refers to four manuscripts apparently penned by survivors of the 99th, excerpts from which form the bulk of the narrative. We have a surveillance report the “Author” writes on his fellow inmates to win the approval of the higher-ups — this strand contains a wry commentary on the state’s influence on literary production in China — along with a “true” account of his experiences. There is also a hagiographic portrait of the Child and, last, a theoretical tract that offers a new rendition of the myth of Sisyphus.
If this final thread nods to the allegories of Albert Camus, it also speaks to an ongoing tension in Yan’s own work between the broadly philosophical and the specifically political. In Dream of Ding Village, for instance, it can be difficult to tell whether he is ascribing the HIV-Aids epidemic to policy mistakes or simply to the cruelty of rural life, and the ambiguity blunts the satire’s edge.
In The Four Books, however, the absurdist philosophy and the political criticism are more closely aligned. Towards the end of the novel, as the Child tries and fails to navigate a seemingly infinite chain of command to reach the inner sanctums of the politburo in Beijing — there are allusions here to Kafka’s The Castle — we see how the Great Famine resulted from the callous detachment of senior Maoists. In Yan’s bleak vision of communist China, the party bureaucracy rises above the multitudes like an endless tower — and it’s higher-ups all the way up.
The Four Books, by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas, Chatto & Windus, RRP£16.99/ Grove Press, RRP$27, 352 pages