To imagine the Great Leap Forward—an event that began as a febrile dream and ended as an apocalyptic nightmare—tests the limits of the lucid consciousness. In late 1957, Mao Zedong declared that China could “surpass the UK and catch up to the US” through backyard steel furnaces, experimental agricultural practices, and sheer force of will. Village officials vied with each other to promise impossibly high crop yields; newspapers printed staged photos of experimental rice fields planted so densely that they could support the weight of children. Now it’s hard to understand how anyone sincerely believed, or even pretended to believe, that such outcomes were possible. When famine hit in 1958, the crisis was compounded by an unwillingness on the part of the government to admit failure to Mao or to the citizenry. As a result, China exported grain while millions—anywhere between twenty to forty million between 1959 and 1961—starved to death. We may never know the true death toll, as the Great Famine is more taboo a topic in China than even the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution: where responsibility for the Cultural Revolution can be safely foisted onto a group of extremists, the Great Famine is the original sin of the People’s Republic. The Communist Party has therefore consistently sought to efface from public memory the realities of the most lethal famine in human history.
But if the story of the Great Leap Forward can be told, there is no one better suited to tell the tale than Yan Lianke in his The Four Books. Starting with the 2006 novel Dream of Ding Village, a story of a village in Henan ravaged by AIDS, Yan has dedicated himself to narrating the nightmares that the regime would rather forget. These books are literally jeremiads against the regime, as Yan increasingly calls upon the language of the Bible to castigate what he sees as a fatally corrupt society. The image of the Old Testament God—the God that thunders upon the waters and breaks the cedars of Lebanon—is uncannily well-suited to describing the Great Leap Forward, a time of promised miracles and awesome obliteration, ruled by a mysterious, implacable, and all-powerful authority. By naming his characters according to their profession (“The musician,” “the scholar,” “the theologian”) and setting the book in a re-education camp—an isolated penal facility for thought crime that officially exists outside the judicial system, or, to put it simply, the kind of place that isn’t marked on maps—Yan generalizes his story into the form of a parable. The reader may miss out on some of the strange cultic musicality of this book in Chinese, as the translator Carlos Rojas has prioritized creating prose that reads fluidly in English. This sacrifice, however, is in part unavoidable: the KJV syntax that sounds foreign when translated into Chinese sounds relatively natural when translated back into English.
If this novel were just another example of everybody’s Chinese protest novel, or another tale of the gradual dehumanization of man under inhuman conditions, this novel would be no less necessary, but far less interesting. Yet Yan is someone who still lives in China and wrote within the system for years; he is someone who understands the complexities involved in choosing whether to collaborate, accommodate, or resist. There is no gradual degradation of the prisoners. Most of them rush, without shame, to play the meaningless games of merit accumulation organized by the adolescent who rules the camp (“the Child”), just for the slimmest hope that success in these contests might offer. And “the Child” is no banal functionary: obsessed with martyrdom, he maintains discipline in the camp by threatening to kill himself, and finally redeems the camp through an unimaginable sacrifice. The book ends with a retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus learns to cope with his punishment by hiding all signs of hope and joy. With this ending, the book troublingly intimates that the hope that sustains us might also sustain the system; and that the imagination that allows us to survive might also serve as the infernal machinery of nightmares. Dylan Suher, contributing editor.
The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, begins ordinarily enough, with a police officer (Insector Grebsky) trying to get away from his job, and in this case, showing up at a snowy mountain inn “to ski.” But, as everyone knows, a police officer can never go on vacation: from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s perennially resigned Swedish crime fighter Martin Beck to Georges Simenon’s pipe-smoking Inspector Maigret, these tired civil servants just cannot get away from thieves, murderers, rapists, and—perhaps most importantly for this novel—lunatics. Which is all for the best, because then we would not have the Strugatsky brothers’ strange and amusing 1970 detective satire, translated by Josh Billings.
As our Inspector Grebsky soon discovers (after definitively hanging up his skis, of course), it’s hard to solve any crime surrounded by the liars and misfits who dwell in this “dead mountaineer’s” hotel. They include the mysterious “Hinkus,” who always seems to be lounging on the snowy roof (for his health?); a magician’s disgruntled teenage relative of indiscernible gender; and the “withered old rutabaga” Mr. Moses, “dressed in a sort of hilarious, salmon-colored waistcoat straight out of the middle ages [and] uniform pants with golden general’s stripes.” The fact that Inspector Grebsky spends most of his time getting drunk and playing pool with these mad people only complicates his search for answers. Thankfully, then, the real pleasure to be had from this book is not in its plot, but in its slow revelation of these vacationers’ personalities and relationships: the twists of who is really who, and what they are doing at this hotel.
As the novel progresses, entrenching itself further and further in the impossible circumstances of its crime, these characters and relationships only get more puzzling. The plot would even be frustrating, if the authors’ spoofing of the clichés of detective fiction and their subtle mockery of their moral-to-the-letter inspector weren’t so entertaining. Although it starts a bit slow, staying with the novel rewards. Besides, who can resist a bumbling, drunk detective who relies more on the hotel’s pet St. Bernard than on weapons, or, logic. Eva Richter, blog editor.
I’d like to say Addendum to a Photo Album is unlike anything I’ve ever read—simply because it makes for a good, attention-grabbing introduction to a piece—but that certainly isn’t the case here. In fact, I think this slim novel, which clocks in at 112 pithy pages, handily evokes familiar fellow Russian Leo Tolstoy’s quotable phrase, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Each unhappy family is funny in its own way too, and rendered in thick, lovely language, Lisa Hayden’s translation does not fail to deliver the humor its original surely demands.
And while I’m hesitant to call anything under six hundred pages a saga, Addendum to a Photo Album is as close to a comic family saga you can get in its pagination. Though let me correct myself again. Perhaps “comic” isn’t quite apt, nor is “absurd,” though these are the words that first come to mind: Addendum is a sprawling, mad-cap, borderline hallucinatory, yet strikingly clear examination of a family’s extreme particularity. Firmly lodged in the subjective, focused more on the uniqueness of characters and relationships than on purported universalities. Indeed, much of the plot’s troubles occur when prompted to fix in an annual photograph. And the reader’s troubles, too, arise in the misguided attempt to find coherence in the continent-generation-time-