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FICTION
Yan Lianke
Text Publishing, $22.95

Deep in the Balou mountains, a group of peasants live in harmonious self-sufficiency, ignored by the government and safe from bureaucratic meddling. But when their livelihood is threatened by a freak summer blizzard, the people of Liven are offered a chance to swap their agrarian lifestyle for the bright lights.

Chief Liu, a county official, convinces them to start a travelling performance troupe to showcase their unusual talents. Most of the 197 villagers are disabled in some way and have compensated for their physical shortcomings in spectacular fashion. Among others, there is Blind Tonghua's feather-falling hearing, One-Eye's multiple needle threading, Deafman Ma's firecracker on the ear, One-Legged's leap over flames and Polio Boy's foot-in-bottle cartwheel.

The villagers are willing to have their ''dignity exploited'' in return for substantial cash from the goggle-eyed audience. Liu is motivated less by altruism, however, than by a cunning plan of his own. Profits from the show will be used to buy Lenin's embalmed corpse from Russia and display it in a specially built grand mausoleum in a nearby forest.

The preserved body will ensure a constant flow of tourist revenue to the district and, more important, secure Liu's position as a high-ranking party official. The matriarch of the village, Grandma Mao Zhi, provides a feisty counterpoint to the ambitious and delusional cadre.

Translated from the Chinese, Lenin's Kisses is a sprawling book that rakes over China's historical and contemporary social-political landscape. It has a satirical, allegorical bent that skewers pomposity and the cult of personality. While communism is seen as land-grabbing greed masquerading as equality, capitalism is painted in even darker hues as the Liven residents become so enamoured of Liu's entrepreneurial zeal that they willingly sacrifice their autonomy for fistfuls of yuan. Hubris can lead only to nemesis and, towards the end, the book's tone changes from rollicking farce to tragedy when some of the perfidious ''wholers'' (those born able-bodied) gain control over the unfortunate performing troupe.

Lenin's Kisses is far from a straightforward narrative - it is not only chronologically disjointed, it plays around with odd-numbered chapters and footnotes within footnotes, and revels in a metafictional structure.

Yan Lianke is undoubtedly a beguiling storyteller but, despite its whimsical charm and outlandish characters, the rambling, repetitive nature of the book and its fondness for digressive asides means it outstays its welcome after 500 pages.