CategoryChinese

The Explosion Chronicles: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Yan Lianke, The Explosion Chronicles (2013)

Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas (2016)



Yan Lianke is the only author to appear in last year’s MBIP longlist as well as this year’s. I didn’t get chance to review his The Four Books last year, but I did enjoy it, even though I was flagging by the end. I ended up having much the same reaction to The Explosion Chronicles.

Yan’s novel narrates the history of the fictitious settlement Explosion (named after a volcanic eruption), in particular its expansion over the last sixty years from a village all the way up to a megalopolis. Much of this history revolves around two rival clans, the Kong and Zhu. Explosion gains its initial wealth from the villagers’ following Chief Kong Mingliang’s example and stealing (sorry, unloading) coal from passing trains. The previous chieftain’s daughter, Zhu Ying, makes her fortune elsewhere through prostitution, then comes back to Explosion in order to build an empire there.


To my mind, Yan’s prose style (in Rojas’ translation, of course) often has a folktale quality; and there are touches of magical realism that push the novel into absurdity, if it’s not there already. But Yan’s afterword reveals that some of the events which I had assumed were made up had their basis in actuality. Yan calls his approach ‘mythorealism’, and explains that he felt he had to stretch reality in order to address the particular changes in Chinese society with which The Explosion Chronicles is concerned. It gave me cause to think again about what I’d been reading.



Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist?


What I’ve found having read two Yan Lianke novels is that I do enjoy his work, but in small doses. Over 450 pages (the length of The Explosion Chronicles), it becomes a little wearying, as the novel is quite repetitive. Yan’s book won’t make my top six, but I can see absolutely why it might find a place on the official shortlist.

A weekend of novellas

Recently, Scott Pack spent a couple of weekends reading novellas. IT sounded an interesting idea, and I had some time this weekend, so I thought I’d do the same. It did cross my mind that, having recently resolved to slow down and savour the books I read, I might be contradicting myself by now reading a small pile of books in a relatively short space of time – but actually I don’t think I was. If (as I’ve said elsewhere) a novel is like a journey and a short story is more like an intense moment of experience, then a novella is perhaps somewhere between – a sustained period of heightened experience. If I made sure that this wasn’t about reading as many books as I could, but about selecting a few and taking the time and space to appreciate them properly, there was no reason it couldn’t work.

I looked on my shelves for novellas, but also borrowed a few from the library, as I wanted there to be an element of uncertainty to the selection. The one change from my plan was that I read only six novellas, rather than the seven I had lined up – in the event, seven felt like overdoing it; six was a nice round number, manageable in the time, and still a pretty substantial amount to get through.

So, here’s what I read at the weekend (some of these may be too long or too short to count as true novellas, but hey-ho):

ProulxAnnie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain (1997)

Originally published in the New Yorker, then later released as a separate book (interestingly, several years before the film – which I haven’t seen, by the way). Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist meet as young ranch hands in 1963; while working and camping together on Brokeback Mountain, they become intimate; and their feelings for each other will haunt the rest of their lives. Brokeback Mountain is a fine example of short fiction’s ability to distil entire lives into a few pages; indeed, part of the point is that Ennis’ and Jack’s lives have been defined by a few incidents. The problem is, I never really believed in their attraction: it comes on abruptly and, for me at least, never gains the emotional weight that it needs. Now, I recognise that this could be Proulx’s point: that the two men don’t examine their desire for each other, but just accept that it’s there; and at least one of them wants to keep it at a distance, so that’s reflected in the tone of the writing. But even with that thought in mind, Brokeback Mountain doesn’t quite work for me.

garnier

Pascal Garnier, The Islanders (2010)
Translated from the French by Emily Boyce (2014)

This is the sixth of the late Pascal Garnier’s noirs to appear in English from Gallic Books, and the third I’ve read; it’s typically tense, wry, and strange. Olivier returns to Versailles to bury his mother; he discovers that his childhood Jeanne is living opposite with her blind brother Rodolphe. Jeanne and Olivier have a dark secret in their past, which threatens to come out into the open. And they’re about to gain another secret, when Olivier wakes up after a dinner party with the siblings to find the fourth guest – a stranger who had been helping Rodolphe around town – dead in the bathroom. You can guess this isn’t going to end well, but what really keeps the pages turning in The Islanders is the uncertainty over just how far these characters are prepared to go – and maybe even they don’t know until the time comes to find out.

SmithZadie Smith, The Embassy of Cambodia (2013)

My reactions to Zadie Smith’s work range from lukewarm to positive; happily, this one was positive. Its starting point is the fact that the Cambodian Embassy in London, unlike most embassies, is not in the city centre, but is instead a house on a suburban street. About the only thing anyone can see over the wall is a flying shuttlecock; what’s going on behind those walls – apart from a game of badminton – is anyone’s guess. So the Embassy becomes a metaphor for the hidden worlds and lives that lie in our midst. Smith’s protagonist is Fatou, who walks past the Embassy of Cambodia on her way to the swimming pool (where she secretly takes advantage of her employers’ membership) and wonders about her place in the world. This is a satisfying story that swoops in and out, from one person’s life to the wider world, and hinting at the untold stories that become lost in the throng of a busy street.

Garcia Marquez

Gabriel García Márquez, No One Writes to the Colonel (1961)
Translated from the Spanish by J.S. Bernstein (1968)

One thing that a project like this novella-reading is useful for is ticking off a few names on the old “authors I’ve been meaning to read” list. So here’s my introduction to Gabriel García Márquez. Every Friday – as he has for the last fifteen years – the colonel eagerly awaits the mail, hoping that this will be the week his army pension arrives. In the meantime, the colonel and his wife subsist as best they can, their only real hope being the prize rooster that might win a few cockfights – if the colonel can resist the temptation to sell it. There’s a sense of absurdity running through this story, but it’s a rueful absurdity, born of being caught in an impossible situation – the absurd (but all too real) bureaucracy that withholds the colonel’s pension, and the absurd (but again all too real) lengths he has to go to in order to survive and keep face. I liked No One Writes to the Colonel, but feel I don’t quite have the measure of García Márquez’s work yet; I’ll have to read something else by him for that.

Yan GeYan Ge, White Horse (2008)
Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (2014)

Published by HopeRoad Publishing (who have a particular focus on African, Asian, and Caribbean writers), White Horse is the story of Yun Yun, who watches her cousin Zhang Qing grow up and drift away to test the waters of adulthood, though her parents may not approve. Meanwhile, Yun Yun’s widowed father is seeing one of the local teachers, which will reveal further cracks in the family’s relationships. There’s a clarity to Nicky Harman’s translation which makes this novella engaging to read, but it’s the deceptive clarity of a child’s voice – one that doesn’t know or perceive everything. This is what leads into the deeper heart of Yan Ge’s tale; that and the mysterious visions of white horses that Yun Yun keeps seeing, which may represent her own growing awareness. Good stuff.

Suceava

Bogdan Suceavă, Miruna, a Tale (2007)
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (2014)

When I saw this book in the shop it was shrinkwrapped, with no blurb on the back cover; so I had nothing to judge it by but the gorgeous design (hats off to Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press; it really is a beautiful object). Happily, the contents are just as good. The narrator, Trajan, recalls childhood visits to his grandfather in Evil Vale, where the old man would tell stories of family history which blurred the line with myth. Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation captures that elusive magical quality that makes Grandfather’s tales of fays and curses persuasive. But what I like most about Bogdan Suceavă’s book is how fully it dissolves the line between truth and fantasy: Trajan’s sister Miruna shares her grandfather’s affinity for the magical; so something is carried between them with the telling of the tales that Trajan can only guess at. And, as we only ever hear Trajan’s voice, how are we to know what’s real and what isn’t? Ultimately, it seems that what matters most is simply that the stories are told.

My final thoughts? I enjoyed doing this – it brought me into contact with books I might not have read otherwise, and led me to take from my shelves books I hadn’t got around to. I quite like the idea of having an occasion like this to read novellas, and I think I’ll be trying it again before long.

#IFFP2014 guest post: @JacquiWine on The Dark Road

Today I have a guest post from the one member of the IFFP shadow jury who doesn’t have their own blog, Jacqui Patience (@JacquiWine on Twitter). Various blogs (including Winston’s Dad, Tony’s Reading List, and The Writes of Woman) have been hosting Jacqui’s thoughts on the longlisted titles (see the end of this post for links); and now she’s been kind enough to visit Follow the Thread, with a review of Ma Jian’s The Dark Road. So, without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Jacqui…

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Dark RoadThe Dark Road by Ma Jian 

Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew

The infant spirit sees Mother sitting on the edge of her bed, her hand clutching her swollen belly, her legs trembling with fear…

Meili rest her hands on her pregnant belly and feels the fetus’s heartbeat thus like a watch beneath a pillow. The heavy banging on the compound gate grows louder, the dim light bulb hanging from the ceiling sways. The family planning officers have come to get me, she says to herself. She raises her feet from the basin of warm water in which they’ve been soaking, hides under her quilt and waits for the gate to be forced open. (pg. 1)

That’s the opening section of Ma Jian’s latest novel The Dark Road. The subject is shocking and deeply disturbing as it tackles issues raised by China’s state-enforced one-child policy. Set in relatively recent times in the provinces along the Yangtze, the novel tells the story of a young woman, Meili, and her family. Meili, born into a simple peasant family, is married to Kongzi, a rather stubborn schoolteacher and direct descendant of Confucius (76th generation Kong). They have a two-year-old daughter, Nannan, but Kongzi is desperate for a son and heir to maintain the family line; daughters serve little purpose in this respect:

My brother has no sons, so it’s my responsibility to continue the family line. Our daughters will join their husbands’ family when they marry, and their names won’t be recorded in the Kong register. So they serve no purpose to us. (pg.34)

Family planning officers are combing the villages, implementing a regime of draconian measures including enforced abortions and sterilisations – any pregnant woman who doesn’t have a birth permit is given an immediate abortion together with a 10,000-yuan fine. It’s an environment where threatening slogans cry out from walls at almost every turn:

SEVER THE FALLOPIAN TUBES OF POVERTY; INSERT THE IUDs OF PROSPERITY (pg.15)

After the first child: an IUD. After the second child: sterilisation. Pregnant with a third or fourth? The fetus will be killed, killed, killed (pg. 32)

ANY PERSON FOUND TO HAVE EVADED MANDATORY STERILISATION WILL BE ARRESTED AND FINED (pg. 86)

The state’s birth control policies dictate that a couple in Kongzi and Meili’s situation can have a second child once their daughter turns five, but Meili falls pregnant too soon, two or three years before her permitted time. While Meili has been able to conceal the early stages of her pregnancy, the couple are forced to go on the run fearing for the safety of their unborn child.

The story then follows the family as they journey down the ‘Dark Road’ of the Yangtze and Gui rivers on a boat, attempting to evade the authorities in the process. They join a world of migrant workers — many of whom are also fleeing from a similar threat — as they head towards Heaven Township. For Meili, this destination represents a glimmer of light on the horizon; it’s the one place where ‘you can live in complete freedom…no one checks how many children you have’. (p 27)

The Dark Road depicts a world where women suffer repeated acts of horrific cruelty.  Scenes of enforced abortion are described in merciless and brutal detail. In the following passage, the police discover a woman heavily pregnant with her third child as she hides in the reeds near a reservoir:

The wife was dragged to the school, where family planning officers strapped her to a wooden desk and injected two shots into her abdomen. The aborted fetus is now lying at Kong Qing’s feet in a plastic basin. It has its father’s flat nose and small eyes. Scraps of amniotic fluid are still stuck to its black hair. (pg 7-8)

It’s unflinching stuff, stark in its portrayal of the sheer savagery of abuse forced upon these families by the authorities.

Once I get going, I rarely abandon a book. But in all honesty, if it weren’t for my involvement in the IFFP shadow group, I would have been quite close to bailing on The Dark Road at the 75-page mark. That’s not to say it’s a bad book; it’s well-written, the main characters and their environment are vividly painted and I admire Jian for the way he’s used fiction to expose these atrocities. But this is a book suffused with tragic encounters and shocking acts of brutality, all of which makes for a very distressing and heart-wrenching read. The only rays of hope here are Meili’s determination and her desire to seek a better life for her family…and that’s what spurred me on to finish reading this one.

While researching and writing The Dark Road, Jian posed as an official reporter to gain access to family planning offices and hospitals where forced abortions and sterilisations are carried out. He also lived as a vagrant to experience life among those on the run from the consequences of China’s one-child policy. Jian has clearly drawn on this experience to great effect in his uncompromising depiction of the horrors that haunt this corner of the world.

Finally, turning to The Dark Road’s chances as a contender for the IFFP, Ma Jian is a well-respected writer and considered one of China’s leading dissident voices. It’s a book that tackles an unpalatable topic and many of its images will linger in the mind long after the last page is turned.  Even though it’s not one of my personal favourites from this year’s longlist, I wouldn’t be surprised if it progresses to the next stage…we shall see when the shortlist appears on 8th April.

The Dark Road is published in the UK by Chatto & Windus.

Source: library copy.

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Read more reviews of The Dark Road by the shadow IFFP jury: Dolce Bellezza; Winston’s Dad; Tony’s Reading List;

Read Jacqui’s other IFFP reviews: Brief Loves that Live Forever; Butterflies in NovemberA Man in Love; A Meal in Winter; RevengeStrange Weather in Tokyo; Ten.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

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