Satire meets sci-fi, horror, and social criticism in the prolific Chinese novelist Yan’s latest concoction.
Something is always happening in Yan’s villages: They’re booming in The Explosion Chronicles (2016), turning into Red Disneylands in Lenin’s Kisses (2012), imploding under the weight of profiteers’ schemes in Dream of Ding Village (2011). Our narrator here is 14-year-old Li Niannian, nicknamed “Stupid Niannian,” who laments, “My own reputation is as minuscule as a speck of dust lost in a pile of sesame seeds, or a flea nit hidden on the back of a camel, an ox, or a sheep.” The child of morticians, he lives across the way from a writer named Yan Lianke in Gaotian, a village that, Niannian believe, lies at the center of the world. When we meet him, Niannian is imploring the celestial beings to protect Gaotian, his family, and Yan from decidedly weird events—for the people of Gaotian have turned in for the night, but they cannot sleep, and as they “dreamwalk” they do untoward things: Uncle Zhang goes off to work a field, waking in a start, only to chide himself: “You are truly fucking debased! Your wife ran away with someone else while you were busy working, yet you still come here to thresh grain for her.” More dangerously, Zhang Mutou, sure that his wife is messing around, finds her supposed lover while sound asleep and cracks his skull. Other dark mischief and many deaths—539, precisely—ensue, so that the village’s busiest enterprise is the crematorium, producing a gusher of icy-smelling “corpse oil”: “Most of this coldness was produced from people’s hearts, and without it the barrel would simply have been an ordinary barrel of oil." It’s as if to say that the official dream of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” is capable of producing only death—a message that surely won’t cheer the Politburo, for which reason Yan's work is often banned in his native country.
As dreamscape realized, however horrible, Yan’s novel belongs in the company of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo and even James Joyce’s Ulysses.