Sunday, November 4, 2012

Satire With Chinese Characteristics

This appeared in today's DNA.


In Tom Robbins’s debut novel, the countercultural Another Roadside Attraction, the attraction in question turns out to be the body of Jesus Christ stolen from a secret chamber in the Vatican and now on display at a travelling circus in Washington. In his new novel, Lenin’s Kisses, Yan Lianke uses a similar conceit to cast a beady eye on contemporary China, with the corpse being that of the gentleman mentioned in the title.

Swiftean satire is Yan’s weapon of choice. His earlier To Serve the People was banned in China because of controversial scenes of a soldier smashing busts of Mao to regain his libido; this was followed by Dream of Ding Village -- also banned -- based on an actual incident of an AIDS outbreak after a blood donation drive. Lenin’s Kisses is as bold, obviously using an imaginary scenario but one with many clear and farcical correspondences with China today. As translator Carlos Rojas says in his introduction, "Yan Lianke appears to delight in his ability to dance at the very margins of what is politically permissible".

The novel is set in and around a remote village inhabited by people with various disabilities. They’re resigned to their penurious lives after a crop failure due to a freak storm, but perk up when county chief Liu comes to them with a plan to buy and put on display the embalmed body of the communist leader from Russia, thus earning the region some much-needed revenue.

In order to raise funds to procure the corpse, the blind, the deaf, the crippled and the stunted create a travelling carnival. A typical show comprises, among other acts, a “one-legged flying leap”, “one-eyed needle threading”, leaf embroidery by a paraplegic and a polio-stricken boy’s foot-in-a-bottle routine.
The shows turn out to be a huge success and the performers are suddenly flush with funds -- this, of course, creates further problems stemming from rapacity and extortion. The move from communal life to entrepreneurial riches shows up people at their worst.

This is not to say that Yan takes sides. There’s also a wizened character named Grandma Mao -- an allegorical counterpoint to the ambitious county chief -- who has in the past set up a "mutual aid team” to create a “new harmonious society” in the village. She’s uncomfortable with the new get-rich-quick mentality, and is summarily told: "Granny, if you all hadn’t carried out your Revolution, we wouldn’t be having this famine".

Yan’s structure is as unusual as his novel’s incidents. The episodic chapters range freely between time periods and come with footnotes that go into greater detail, often encapsulating the lives of those mentioned earlier. (At times, even the footnotes have footnotes.) Then again, the chapters and footnotes have only odd numbers -- Yan has explained that this is because the Chinese consider such numbers inauspicious which, for him, sets the requisite tone, but Rojas points out that it can also be seen as an indication of all that’s missing from the novel because of state censorship.

Satire, however, is a potion best administered in small doses and in this respect the novel is long-winded, with incidents being dwelt upon more than necessary. Yan’s brush is broad and his strokes are occasionally overdone: "Some families are so wealthy that when their kids take a shit, if they don’t happen to have any toilet paper on hand they’ll simply use a ten-yuan bill or two instead".

Many contemporary Chinese writers -- including recent Nobel Laureate Mo Yan -- use the grotesque and the fantastical to portray the state of their nation. Yan is no exception, also employing a sometimes droll, sometimes cutting sarcasm. At one point in the novel, a character tells another, “You can see, and therefore you see the entire world as dirty. I can’t see, and therefore I see the entire world as pristine and pure.” Yan is definitely among those who can see.

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