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The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke

First published in China in 2015; published in translation by Grove Press on December 11, 2018

Li Niannian does not sleep deeply enough to dreamwalk, but on one eventful night, the kind of night that only happens once in a century, most residents of his village suddenly suffer from somnambulism. They behave differently than normal sleepwalkers, because they act out their dreams for hours and resist attempts to awaken them. Some villagers are walking into the river and committing suicide in their sleep. Others die accidental deaths; still others are murdered. Dreamwalkers confess their sins and commit new sins. Some dreamwalkers beat each other to death or plot the murder of spouses. The mayor dreams that he is an emperor.

Niannian’s family makes funeral wreaths and other decorations for the dead. One of his uncles operates the crematorium. As cremation is required by law, it appears that business will be booming for both family businesses after the night of dreamwalking comes to an end. In flashbacks, we learn of controversies surrounding Niannian’s father (a good man who made questionable decisions) and uncle (a questionable man who might be capable of good decisions). One controversy surrounds the proper use of the corpse oil that bodies expel when they are cremated.

The long night of somnambulism is extended by a sunless, cloudy morning — hence the title. Outsiders who learn that villagers are unable to wake up pour into town, breaking into stores and homes and carrying off their loot. Bedlam ensues, and the prolonged lack of sunlight leaves Niannian wondering whether it will ever end. It is up to Niannian’s father to devise an ingenious plan to save the village.

Yan Liane is a character in the novel. He is portrayed as a famous author who occasionally returns to the village for new story ideas. Niannian makes frequent refences to Yan’s other novels (whether those books are real or imagined, I’m not sure), which he claims recount the entire history of the narrator’s family. Yan’s mother fears he will die inside his story if he writes while dreamwalking. Yet writing stories is very much like dreamwalking and Yan would prefer to die than to stop writing.

This brief overview cannot capture the novel’s texture or the richness of its characterization. The story suggests that dreamwalkers expose their true selves when they are free to do whatever they desire. Greed and jealousy become primary motivators of rich dreamwalkers, while despair governs the action of the poor. The story invites readers to wonder what they might do while dreamwalking.

Yan Liane’s writing attempts to make a virtue of redundancy. He repeats sentences or parts of sentences, sometimes adding a new word or slightly rephrasing his thoughts. Whether he does that for emphasis or to create a rhythm, I don’t know. Maybe the style is more successful in Chinese than in translation. I enjoyed the story more than the prose, although Yan’s writing style is otherwise fine.

The story is entertaining while offering interesting thoughts about Chinese history, philosophies, and culture. The novel says something about fate — its disregard of whether someone has lived a good or bad life — and the random nature of death. It also says something about the ability of survivors to accept that randomness and endure. Freshly dug graves are “covered by a layer of new grass, but apart from the fact that this grass was lighter, thinner, and more tender than the surrounding grass, these new graves were scarcely different from the older ones.” Death is every person’s fate, but life continues, new wheat sprouting where the old has been trampled. People and their sacrifices are easily forgotten. All events will be lost to the depths of time, but new events will replace them.  The Day the Sun Died is both death-affirming and life-affirming, telling a timeless and universal story by focusing on a single night in a small village.


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