Yan (The Four Books, 2015, etc.) returns with renewed vigor to the job of lampooning communist orthodoxy, capitalist ambition, and “contemporary China’s incomprehensible absurdity.”
Yan puts what he calls “mythorealism”—a blend of fabulation, wishful thinking, and willful suspension of reality—to work in his yarn of a village flanking the Balou Mountains, a geographical entity familiar to readers of his Lenin’s Kisses (2012). Nothing much happens in Explosion, a hamlet founded by a hundred-odd refugees from a long-ago volcano. Most of those people, Yan tells us, were named Kong or Zhu, and most “claimed to be descendants of Confucius, though there are no genealogical records to corroborate this claim.” Alas, the newest generation of Explosionites lacks the conservative Confucian impulse to leave well enough alone, and soon a hutful of Kong brothers (“Our family will produce an emperor,” says their mother, “but I don’t know which of our four sons it will be”) is vying to consolidate power against the resistance, intentional or not, of their fellow villagers. Says one would-be king Kong to his more effectively ambitious sibling, “My brother, your entire life you have been foiled by women.” True enough. Yan’s yarn might have been more fun if it had tacked into Lysistrata territory, but as it is it has the absurdist feel of an Ionesco or Dürrenmatt piece, though without any of the heavy-handed obviousness. Indeed, his satire is careful and crafty: we all know that when Kong Mingyao says to Kong Mingliang, “Brother, we are truly corrupt,” he is speaking of every Chinese official who would sacrifice the public good for private gain. As it is, the premise is so sweeping—a cabal of Explosionites decides to take their city from whistle-stop to mega-metropolis in a generation, going from hundreds to tens of millions, and all sorts of mayhem ensues—that it can be read as a kind of Swiftian satire, which probably won’t do much to keep Yan out of trouble with the censors in Beijing.
Overly broad but brilliant.