A searing, allegorical view of Chinese society during some of the darkest moments of the Mao era.
Yan (Lenin’s Kisses, 2012, etc.) is no stranger to controversy, running afoul of the censors even while taking a sidelong approach to his criticisms. This novel, more straightforward if sometimes absurd, will doubtless earn him a few more pages in the dossier. The titular four books are an echo of the Confucian classic by that name that the Communist state sought to undo, but they are also four fictitious texts that wend their ways through Yan’s narrative—four texts that are layered onto still other texts, including the Christian Bible, which exercises an odd power over the story as a whole. The time is that of the so-called Great Leap Forward, the setting a re-education camp along the banks of the Yellow River—or, at least, where the river once flowed before the state trumped nature and moved it. The denizens of the camp are supposed “rightists,” bearing names such as the Scholar, the Theologian, the Technician, the Author and so forth. The Author has been charged with the task of chronicling the activities of the others within the camp—spying on them, that is, so that the overseer, who bears the name the Child, can present a thorough record to the powers that be. The Child, who “appeared to be omniscient,” is a mysterious figure, sometimes sympathetic and sometimes tyrannical. All, guards and prisoners alike, are caught up in a vast, dimly comprehensible machine that slowly grinds them to bits. Writes one suicide, having committed cannibalism before hanging himself, “A person’s death is like a light being extinguished, after which it is no longer necessary to worry about trying to re-educate and reform them.” And if the Child’s charges are reduced to such inhuman acts, his fate is no less terrible in the end, Yan’s allegory suddenly made very real.
Yan cements his reputation as one of China’s most important—and certainly most fearless—living writers.