Yan Lianke is no stranger to controversy. His first novel, The Joy of Living, got him expelled from the Chinese army and since then he has become one of China’s most censored – and celebrated – writers and critically acclaimed in the West. In 2014, he won the Franz Kafka Book Prize and his 2015 novel The Four Books was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.
His most recent work to be translated into English is The Explosion Chronicles (first published in 2013 and translated by Carlos Rojas). Like his other works, it is a satirical and darkly absurd cultural critique and a valuable insight into the rising superpower in the East.
The chronicle opens in the town of Explosion where village elders send their children out of the village to seek their fortune. Whatever item they find first will decide their future. Kong Mingliang finds a ballot slip and his future wife, Zhu Ying, and knows that it is his destiny to become mayor of Explosion. This element of fairytale only grows stronger as Mingliang, Zhu Ying and the Kong family, through theft, bribery, corruption, and even prostitution, transform Explosion from a small town into a 20-million strong provincial-level metropolis.
Capitalist greed and opportunism combine with China’s post-Mao Opening Up and Reform movements to produce unbelievable growth, its sensationalism heightened by Lianke’s use of mythorealism: snow falling on command, flowers and fruits constantly appearing in the least likely places and entire airports built in hours on the blood and fingers of citizens. He combines these absurdities with absurd fact: elderly people really did kill themselves to avoid being cremated after new burial laws were passed; dead pigs did float down the Huangpu River and a tiny village really did swell to a population of 20 million. It is obvious to see the parallels with China’s Great Leap Forward, and Lianke’s use of mythorealism and history cleverly exposes the sheer absurdity of expecting China to achieve in decades what the West did in centuries.
The novel is vividly and clearly written, each page bursting with description and simile. The words are as decadent as the life style they describe and at times this grows tiresome, the plot feeling heavy under the weight of all that describing. At times too, Lianke’s proclivity in portraying flowers as reminiscent of women’s genitalia grows irksome and when, towards the end of the book, he describes the colour of a rose bush as similar to sex with a woman on her period, patience for that sort of thing has well and truly run out.
The comparison would not be so troubling if the majority of the women in the story weren’t prostitutes, or if their characters were at all fleshed out. Their dependence on the men in their lives and their use of sex and manipulation is understandable as a portrayal of the tension between traditional Chinese values and the modernizing country, but their two-dimensionality cannot be so excused. They are women as empty skins. To be fair, the male characters are similarly simple and their motivations, almost entirely unexplored. While this might be a stylistic choice in order to better focus on political machinations, the lack of internality makes it hard for readers to feel anything other than a sense of bewilderment towards them and their actions.
The Explosion Chronicles is a powerful satire and condemnation of the human cost of China’s economic development but its failure to genuinely explore the actual human lives of its main characters leaves a gaping hole where the people should be.