In an imaginative, horrific satire, Yan Lianke tells the story of China’s Great Leap Forward in the ninety-ninth district of a sprawling labour camp. The Author, Musician, Scholar, Theologian and Technician, under the command of the Child, require Re-education to install the revolutionary zeal required of all Chinese citizens.
Lianke has structured this book in four narratives, echoing the four text of Confucianism, or the four Gospels of the new Testament. He utilises repetition and thematic patterning, pulling references from these ‘good books’ with a cruel humour to tell of the suffering in the camp. In this camp full of intellectuals there are no names, only individual archetypes. And on this dehumanising, detailed scale, the great story of the Great Famine is told.
The inmates are instructed to meet challenges set by the “higher-ups” – from the province, from the town, from the city, from the capital – that spiral to ever-growing levels of detachment from reality. Each camp is in competition, to see how much they believe in the state, and therefore how much wheat per li of land they promise to yield: the amount they promise, no matter how ridiculous or unreal, rewarded as a direct correlation to how true their belief in the cause is.
Marched to a nearby camp, the intellectuals are shown a play to encourage their revolutionary zeal: starring a Professor who hates his country, he does not believe five thousand jin of wheat per li was possible. After the audience is goaded into shouting for his punishment, the line between acting and reality is messily unclear: the actor is shot live on stage.
During the trip back from the performance, not one person from the ninety-ninth uttered a single word throughout the entire thirty-li walk. There was smoke coming from a distant building and they could hear it in the light of the setting sun. There was also the sound of footsteps, as if someone were striking the frozen ground with their hand. The earth was barren. Barren and distant, it sucked all sound into its belly.
The structure of their punishment is thorough, so the inmates are given high-stakes hope: the intellectuals can win their freedom if they are awarded enough small red blossoms, medium red blossoms and pentagonal stars given out for effort, obedience and informing on others. This causes a wild, competitive nature between them: who maintains the most integrity, who can go home to their families sooner.
When bad weather arrives, followed by the three bitter years of the Great Famine, the intellectuals and the Child are abandoned by the regime and left on their own to survive. Grasping at the bright blood-red blossoms and stars as if the keys to their freedom, they desperately hold onto meaning in their meaningless punishment.
The Author writes two of the interspersed narratives: Criminal Records, as an informer of his fellow intellectuals, and Old Course, his personal novel-of-record to release once he is free, to maintain his sanity and integrity. Located in this shockingly barren world, pushed by seemingly arbitrary and pointless commands from the higher-ups, this narrative is confessional and tattle-tale, connected to myth and religion, philosophy and the sheer horror of reality. The novel becomes increasingly surreal and hyper real, as desperation either alters how the world is written down by the Author, or the reality of the world is warped: you can hear the clouds in the sky; a man waters crops with his own blood.
Lianke is one of China’s most internationally recognised and awarded writers, but this true story of the events in China of the late 1950s cannot be told there today. This allows a kind of sad freedom to Lianke’s prose, a bleak view of the past and present. The translation by Carlos Rojas is rhythmical and sparse in its beauty: the plodding, horrific reality of the pointlessness of their punishment, the arbitrary cruelty of the promises and hope are captured in an accepting, quiet, repetitive way.
There is just so much going on: the philosophical and literary references, the pointless power of the higher-ups and Child, the stark suffering of the Great Famine, the dedication to work that can be instilled in very educated people when the promise of home is given, the deterioration of the reality of this world. This is a sad, good book; smart and horrifying.