Genre- Political fiction
Subgenre- Political satire
Author- Yan Lianke
My rating- 3 star
A political satire by the Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, winner of Franz Kafka Prize and the finalist for the Man Booker Prize 2013. The catastrophic times during the Maoist Great Leap Forward, the state surveillance, moral policing, political oversight of literature, academia, and misrepresentation of history, expressed allegorically and satirically has an Orwellian theme with Grand Guignol-ish narratives in between. It is no wonder that this book is banned in mainland China and is the apple of the Western literary jurist eyes.
The satire illustrates how policy mistakes batter the lower rungs of society when ideologies are translated into realities. For those not familiar with the Maoist ‘ Great Leap Forward’ and it’s catastrophic consequences dealt with in this book, let me summarise what I had read about it from the recorded history( not from Chinese authors and historians, who might have a different take on the whole thing).
The Great Leap Forward was an economic and social campaign led by the Communist Party of China from 1958 to 1962 under Chairman Mao Zedong. He emphasized collective farming and industrialization as vehicles for the rapid economic and social progress to keep pace with the rapidly developing Western world. Aggressive farming and steel smelting were supposed to bring progress in the short term. The resources from the agricultural sector were invested in the industry with the result that agriculture bore the brunt due to lack of essentials and this finally culminated in the Great Chinese Famine that caused millions of deaths. The statistics of agricultural production was greatly overhyped, exaggerated and contorted. History tells us that the common man died out in droves, though the ‘higher-ups’ withstood the onslaught and China was exporting rice when the people starved.
Political control and manipulation of art, literature, history, and academia reached a zenith and anti- Rightist campaign saw the compulsory internment and re-education of intellects, students, artists, authors and so forth in Re-ed camps. The novel is set in a Re-ed camp called the ninety-ninth district close the Yellow River. The inmates are identified by their professions and not their names- as Author, Scholar, Musician, Physician, Theologian and so on. The camp is overseen by a part dictator, part naif, part martyr character termed The Child( Not sure whom the author is evoking, could be Stalin) who uses a carrot and stick policy to keep things going as per the will of the higher-up’s. The Child keeps an eye on the day to day happenings in the camp with the help of the Author, who is being bribed to provide incriminating details about the other inmates through a collection of documents titled ‘Criminal Records’. He is being offered freedom in return. Though the initial agricultural and steel smelting processes came out well, the policy mistakes caught up with the whole thing and the consequent famine took millions of lives and the barely living were forced to feed on grass, wild vegetables and ultimately human flesh. (There is a gory, grisly, upsetting account of human flesh being cooked into a broth and fed. )
The name ‘Four Books’ comes from the names of the four books that the Author is composing in the novel- ‘Criminal Records’ for the higher-ups and three other manuscripts being composed in a clandestine way. Throughout the novel, there are allusions of Christian Mythology( crosses, Inferno, etc.), Chinese Mythology and the novel ends with A New Myth Of Sysiphus( an allusion to divine punishment and human response). The title also evokes the four gospels of Christianity and the four sets of Confucian texts.
Carlos Rojas has brilliantly translated the Chinese text to English. As he has mentioned in the prologue, Yan Lianke is one of the Chinese authors who does not care a speck about whether his works are critical of the regime, is being banned or goes unpublished. He famously wrote that he just wants to produce a work as he exactly wanted to without regard to the topics, contents, terms, recklessly without any concern for the prospect of getting published. As Carlos puts it in the prologue, ‘in view of this, Kafka Prize is a befitting one to Yan, named after an author who famously burned the majority of his compositions and demanded, on his death bed, that his remaining unpublished manuscripts be destroyed as well’.