Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Four Books by Yan Lianke (2012)

The Four Books by Yan Lianke (Beijing, 1958), translated by Carlos Rojas, takes its title from the four books of Confucianism and the four Gospels of Christianity.  The Four Books is a very dark, brilliant look at life in a Re-Education Camp in China during the years of The Great Leap Forward, 1958 to 1961, in which the government devoted all of the resources of the country to an effort to surpass the industrial productivity of the United States.  Anyone with the hint of a middle class or above past, with any sign of a western education was sent for an indefinite stay in what were called "Re-Education Camps" in which those who once might have been a concert pianist or a famous scholar were made to do farm work or smelt iron under the brutal direction of "leaders" who were distinguished only by their mindless devotion to the ideas of Mao and his underlings.  In one heart breaking scene, a mathematician presented a solution to a centuries old problem and the only comment on it by the authorities reviewing all academic work  was "send him for re-education". 

The Four Books focuses on camp 99.  All those in this camp used to be university professors.  They are under the direction of "The Child".  No one in the book has a name, they are referred to by their old work, as say The Theologian, the Author, the Musician,  the Scholar and so on.  The camp starts out producing wheat and later smelting Iron. People are given gold stars by the Child when he approves of their actions.  With enough stars, you can in theory leave the camp and go home.  People also get stars for informing on others and just at the whim of the child.  The child begins to collect all the western and Chinese classic books the professors had brought to the camp to burn in his quarters for warmth.  Sex is forbidden.

The atmosphere of the camp is one of constant anxiety and stress with terrible punishments for minor infractions of rules.  No one can trust anyone else.  Camp residents are referred to as "criminals".

The book has a very interesting narrative structure.  The author writes a running commentary on camp activities for the child, informing on others and gets extra stars and food for that.  He is also in theory writing a real book on the experience.  

Soon the Great Famine comes in which millions died and we see the terrible impact of this.  The sole focus of life for camp members is in the search for food.  Many die of starvation and some resort to cannabalism of the recent dead.  The Child is every boss you ever hated.  He worships the "higher ups" and drives those in his camp to impossible production goals.  

I know it may not sound like it, but in many ways this is a very entertaining book, a satire on institutional power. Large cooperations like to infantilize their employees and often characters very like the Child are placed as front line managers, selected for their stupidity and venal devotion to the "higher ups".  Anyone who ever worked for a giant corporation will see that.  There is a lot of violence, cruelty and incredible hardship depicted.  Some rise to great dignity, others sink to the pits, often the same person does both.  The ending is shocking and disturbing in its depth.  

I really enjoyed The Four Books and found it a near compulsive read.  

Yan Lianke


was born in Beijing in 1958. He is the author of a huge number of novels and story

collections, all remarkable for both their subject matter and their style. He has received many literary prizes, the most prestigious: the Lu Xun in 2000 and the Lao She in 2004. 

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