02 Feb / The Four Books by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas [in Library Journal]
Yan Lianke (Dream of Ding Village) has built his substantial career on exposing the surreal absurdity of China’s 20th-century tragedies. His latest-in-translation features the 99th district of a reeducation camp, where intellectuals controlled by a maniacally cruel yet innocently naïve child endure merciless conditions designed to recommit them to communism. Among the Child’s prisoners are the Author, the Scholar, the Musician, and the Theologian, who like other inmates must fulfill impossible production quotas in areas from harvesting to smelting, driven by the Child’s promises of freedom.
Surviving the Great Famine, which experts estimate claimed a staggering 2,043 million victims, has unfathomable costs. Yan’s multilayered novel is presented as dovetailing excerpts from the titular Four Books: the Author’s Criminal Record, written in exchange for early release; the Author’s own Old Course; an anonymous narrative called Heaven’s Child; and a philosophical fragment from A New Myth of Sisyphus. The title is also a brilliant evocation of the foreshadowing of death (four and death are homophones in Chinese), Christianity’s Four Gospels, and Confucianism’s Four Books. Ironically, the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism were the foundation of imperial China’s civil service exams, which created the intellectual class: communism’s enemies. Books remain significant throughout – hidden, beloved, confiscated, burned.