Reviewing a book that has been banned in its author’s native country presents certain challenges as well as certain obligations as in the case of celebrated Chinese novelist Yan Lianke’s The Day the Sun Died, his latest book to appear in English translation (the Chinese original was published in 2015). In his translator’s introduction, Carlos Rojas sees in Joyce’s Ulysses a literary antecedent to Yan’s novel based on their contested reception histories, shared thematic content, and similar narrative strategies.
Yan’s story centers on fourteen-year old teenager Li Niannian and his family’s “New World” funerary business in the rural Chinese village of Gaotian, which provides them with “a decent living profiting off dead people.” The narrative itself takes place over the course of a single night in which time eventually stands still and the sun disappears.
Beginning at dusk one June evening and recounted retrospectively by Niannian, the story proceeds along irregular hourly intervals as the town and its inhabitants are gradually overtaken by what is described as “the great somnambulism”. Ostensibly awake although unaware of their actions, the villagers innocently appear to “dreamwalk”, but in fact “see only the people and things they care about, and it is as if nothing else exists.” Alarmingly dark chaos is quickly born from such single-mindedness. Old people commit suicide by drowning themselves in a river, while the younger generations forsake hard work in favour of theft and violence. In the absence of daylight, neighbor begins to prey upon neighbor, often robbing and beating each other to death. The contagion spreads, and, as the darkness intensifies, adjoining villagers descend on Gaotian, driven by a nightmarish blend of quenchless avarice and violent bloodlust. The sleep of reason, Yan reminds his readers, still has the power to produce monsters.
Following the novel’s translation into English, two predominate interpretations have emerged, namely a view of it as either a political critique of the Chinese Communist party and contemporary Chinese society (the prevailing view of Western critics) or an exploration of “the basic and fundamental truths about the human heart” (Lianke’s own appraisal in a recent Guardian interview). The truth, one suspects, lies somewhere in the middle.
Despite Yan’s demurred (and understandable) aversion to political interpretations, the novel’s critical intent is self-evident. “Dreamwalking” inverts President Xi Jinping’s much-vaunted though nebulous “Chinese Dream” with horrifying effect. At one point, Niannian’s dreamwalking aunt and uncle prepare four dishes and a soup laced with an insecticide for their fellow Gaotian ruling elites, who, unlike the villagers, eat and socialize rather than steal and kill. Although the expression “four dishes and a soup” dates to the Ming Dynasty, President Xi has used it as a coded exhortation towards modesty and frugality amongst Party elites. As Niannian observes early in his narrative, “Everybody believed in dreams, but didn’t believe in reality. It was all quite odd.”
But is this novel pessimistic, even nihilistic? Despite its deathly pallor, “dreamwalking, it turns out, could transform someone who is heroically bad into someone who is quietly good.” Pugnacious villagers by day turn apologetic by night; Li Tianbao, Niannian’s father, apologizes for his misdeeds; and the wife of the paralyzed and terminally ill Ma Huzi admits that she killed her husband after years of care without respite or improvement. If one of the basic and fundamental truths about the human heart is that it tends towards darkness, then Yan is equally willing to submit his art to the light of conscience. After all, the plot concerns a day, one day, during which the sun died—an indelible trauma, but one nonetheless overcome.
Yan is never one to shy away from postmodern touches.
When reading The Day the Sun Died, however, one wonders about the unintended consequences of censorship and whether they are more significant than the intended ones. Never one to shy away from postmodern touches, Yan incorporates a fictional double of himself (not unlike Bret Easton Ellis and Philip Roth), but his metafictional presence within his own novel suggests a precarious wavering between self-identification and self-alienation. Niannian also routinely misquotes titles and passages by the real Yan. Are such textual alterations suggestive of self-censorship based on years of giving offense and being sanctioned for it?
And then there is the bleakness. Of Yan’s novels Niannian writes that “when placed together they resemble a vast wilderness” or “a simple yet messy grave.” Elsewhere he complains:
Whenever I read your books, I always feel chilled to the core. The yin in your books is simply too strong.
JM Coetzee has argued that writing does not flourish under censorship, a malady that afflicts the novel’s fictional Yan Lianke, who periodically suffers from writer’s block and is not immune to dreamwalking himself. But just as he is ready to write, his mother slaps him in the face and warns:
If you don’t wake up, you’ll die inside your story…. Quick, come out of your story,… If you don’t, then you’ll be written to death inside your own story.
Perhaps Yan shares Stephen Dedalus’s immobilizing concern over the nightmare of history, one from which he is trying to awaken. Or perhaps he has chosen instead to linger between China’s contentious past and the promise of its future. As he writes,