Moral­ity tale in a get-rich-quick scheme

Lenin’s Kisses

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rowan Callick

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

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