Great leaps sometimes falter
The village chief in Lenin's Kisses, plans to buy the Soviet leader's body. Photo: AP
By Yan Lianke
THE BATHING WOMEN
By Tie Ning
Blue Door, $29.99
THERE has been plenty of debate about Mo Yan and the issue of awarding the Nobel prize for literature to a paid-up member of the Communist Party, but there has been little serious analysis of the work itself. A genuine assessment of the literary merits of Chinese writing in translation is possible only if you read the work, and two new titles give readers the opportunity to do just that.
In Yan Lianke's Lenin's Kisses, the fictional village of Liven, hidden in the Balou mountains in remote Henan, is home exclusively to disabled people. The village survives, off the administrative map, until the 1930s, when a young and well-meaning female revolutionary soldier marooned there forces its entry into ''society''. Liven, like the rest of China, becomes another stage for the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that follows.
Mao Zhi, the erstwhile soldier, realises she has ruined the people's lives and for the rest of her days works to disentangle Liven and its villagers from the destructive forces of living under collective rule.
In present-day Liven, Chief Liu has other ideas. A puffed-up bureaucrat, Liu is determined to transform the Balou mountains by buying Lenin's corpse from Russia to display as a tourist attraction. To raise money for this extraordinary venture, he recruits the villagers, vulnerable after a bad harvest, into a special-skills troupe in which their disabilities become novelties and their handicaps magic tricks.
Yan Lianke, author of Lenin's Kisses. Photo: James Brickwood
Seduced by the idea of wealth, the villagers are swept up in the promise of capitalism with Chinese characteristics. The troupe is a sensation, the village prospers, the Lenin dream looks set to become a reality, provided meddling old Mao Zhi stays out of the way.
The tension between these two strident, fabulous characters is the centrifugal force around which the novel revolves. Mao Zhi, representing memory and the idea that history can be learnt from, is too old to lead the villagers and offers nothing to rival a thrilling performance troupe. Chief Liu, gazing at the portraits of his heroes - Zheng Zhilong, Lenin, Mao Zedong - has no patience for any distractions from the road to prosperity.
The novel's surrealism is veneered in a hard, bright tone, the perfect register for the absurdist quality of the tale. Despite the debt of many of Yan Lianke's generation of writers to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the feats of the villagers (a deaf man explodes 200 firecrackers in his ear without blinking, nine dwarfs are dressed identically and bundled into a bag to be produced for a beaming audience as miracle nonuplets) are explicable where Marquez's levitating nuns are not.
A casual and direct brutality pervades, but there is a joyousness, too, a hyper-real carnival atmosphere that sweeps up the reader as much as it reflects the frenzy of the characters.
Fact and fiction are hard to separate at the best of times in chronicling modern China, and Lenin's Kisses revels in their blurring. The history is far from joyful - the depravity and the deaths from starvation, the times Yan Lianke was born into - were real. The headlong plunge into a market economy that exploits its weakest members is a reality, but equally authentic is the energy and wild enthusiasm driving the change.
The structure of the novel skilfully mirrors the author's view of the treatment of history in the Chinese collective memory. Its historical sections, viewed from Mao Zhi's perspective, are relegated to footnotes, but they run longer than the chapters. Chapters and footnotes are referenced using odd numbers. The constant omission, nodding to censorship and a broken narrative, serves as a reminder that always only part of a story is being told.
Tie Ning, authour of The Bathing Women.
The most muscular of Yan Lianke's novels to date, Lenin's Kisses is a triumph, a blistering absurdist allegory and a genuine contest to the idea that writers working in China are rendered mute, like many of the residents of Yan's fictional village, by the political structure around them.
Tie Ning's The Bathing Women is a different proposition. A bestseller in China, with more than a million copies sold, her only English translation to date presents a contemporary China in which individuals have far greater control over their lives.
Yi Xiaotiao and Yi Fan are sisters whose adult lives have been shaped by the dramatic death of their third sister, Yi Quan, in childhood. Successful urban women who date movie stars and foreign students, they are concerned chiefly with love and familial responsibility, clashing against the values of their childhood and each other as they navigate the new China and its shifting cultural landscape.
Female-driven narratives such as these are translated infrequently and rarely are they considered literary. A long way from the cloying tone of Xinran or Jung Chang, Tie's frank portrayals of female sexuality are refreshing (despite the violence that underpins almost every sexual act). She is head of the Chinese Writers Association, which counts Mo Yan and Yan Lianke among its members, and an intellectual, and her musings on art and the role and constraints of literature are revealing. But her politics, and casual racial essentialism, will grate with many, and the frequent hijacking of the narrative by the author is, at best, an irritation.
■ Jenny Niven is associate director of the Wheeler Centre, and a co-founder of the Bookworm International Literary Festival in Beijing.