Morality tale in a get-rich-quick scheme
By Yan Lianke Translated by Carlos Rojas Text Publishing, 560pp, $32.99
IN his latest blockbuster, Yan Lianke’s hero/anti-hero (we’re never quite sure which), party chief Liu, dreams up a great way for his remote rural district to get rich. It will get Vladimir Lenin.
He proposes making a deal with the Russians to buy the embalmed body of the totalitarian hero, which is still drawing crowds in Moscow’s Red Square after 88 years, and to showcase it instead at a special mausoleum in China, as the centrepiece of a moneymaking theme park on Spirit Mountain.
It’s not an entirely unlikely thesis. After all, Australian Chinese Theme Park claims it will spend $500 million to create at Wyong north of Sydney a full-sized replica of the towering gate houses designed to terrify visitors as they approached ‘‘ the Great Within’’, Beijing’s Forbidden City. There is also to be a replica of an area of ‘‘ water city’’ Suzhou — China’s ancient version of Venice — and a nine-storey pagoda containing a giant Buddha.
Yan’s previous book, Serve the People!, featured a couple whose libido was lit up by destroying icons of Mao Zedong. Here he appears to be musing on the chairman’s own embalmed remains, which since 1977 have been on view in an ugly ‘‘ maosoleum’’ that has destroyed the feng shui of Tiananmen Square, at whose centre they now lie.
His translator Carlos Rojas notes: ‘‘ Despite his trenchant criticism of the ‘ castrating’ effects of the Chinese state’s censoring apparatus, Yan Lianke appears to delight in his ability to dance at the very margins of what is politically permissible.’’
There is surreptitious support in China for prising Mao out of Beijing and returning his remains to Hunan, where he grew up.
And ‘‘ red tourism’’ — following the route of, say, the Long March, and visiting any site associated with Mao — has become a common pilgrimage in China, especially for party members who sometimes dress up in Red Army garb to enter more fully the spirit of the place.
Chief Liu also obtains valuable memorabilia of Marx and Engels, including ‘‘ a pair of Marx’s knitted sleepwear’’. In Zunyi, a key Long March site, a small museum contains a voluminous pair of swimming trunks with which Mao was said to have swum the Yangtze.
But at the core of Yan’s deeply pessimistic book is the fact neither communist conformism nor money-making mania, which he posits as the alternatives for the former in China, appear to provide a viable or humanistic way for people to live.
The complicating factors are that everyone who lives in Liu’s area has a form of disability, and that the area appeared to have escaped miraculously the madness of Mao’s China until 1960, when the ‘‘ heavenly days’’ arrived. Then, ‘‘ each family’s land was combined, and their oxen ploughs, hoes and sowing drills were all collectivised’’. This was known as ‘‘ entering society’’.
Although those who lost out the most ‘‘ initially wanted to cry and make a scene, after hearing a few gunshots they calmed down’’. When the zealous cadres moved on they left their gun with Mao Zhi, who had fought with the communists in her youth.
But Mao Zhi wants her community to be allowed to ‘‘ withdraw from society’’. Chief Liu says he will permit them to do so, but only after they have formed a successful performance troupe to raise the funds needed to bring Lenin to Spirit Mountain.
The villagers perform triumphantly, raking in massive amounts of money with their freak show that demonstrates the skills that amply compensate for their disabilities. Cruel events ensue. Those who court power or wealth come unstuck — but so do the villagers, who are comparatively innocent, whether they seek to enter or withdraw from ‘‘ society’’ — a particularly ominous term as used by Yan.
Published in English not long after Mo Yan