The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

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Entries in China (4)


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.



Death Notice by Zhou Haohui 

First published in China in 2014; published in translation by Doubleday on June 5, 2018

The Chengdu police have formed a task force to investigate the murder of police sergeant Zheng Haoming. Eighteen years earlier, a task force investigated the murders of the vice commissioner of Chengdu’s criminal police and two police academy students. The killer prepared “death notices” announcing those executions in advance. Given the Chinese government’s culture of secrecy, the murders were never made public, nor were they solved. The unsolved murders are relevant because a death notice was also prepared for Zheng before his murder. The notices identify the executioner as Eumenides, one of the Furies of Greek mythology.

Ironically, Zheng had been a member of the task force examining the original murders eighteen years earlier. His journal reveals that he began to reinvestigate the murders. Soon after Zheng is killed, Eumenides apparently accomplishes several more murders under the collective noses of the Chengdu police.

The novel follows several officers who work to uncover the identity of Eumenides. The story primarily follows a police psychologist named Mu Jainyun, who uncovers a potential link between the original murders and a drug bust that occurred a month earlier. Meanwhile, the other officers are either accusing each other of keeping secrets or doing not much of anything.

Death Notice isn’t the kind of whodunit that invites the reader to piece together clues and catch the killer. It’s more of a Chinese police procedural. The political and bureaucratic concerns that impede a proper investigation are interesting but underplayed, perhaps to avoid censorship of a novel that might be seen as exposing the inefficiency or corruption of Chinese policing. It is a common theme in crime fiction that escaping justice is a privilege of wealth, and that theme is advanced in Death Notice, but in a way that seems watered down compared to western crime novels.

The novel’s big reveal comes out of the blue, with an explanation tacked on in an epilogue. Death Notice is the first book in a trilogy, however, so don’t expect the story to be fully resolved by the end of the novel.

Characters tend to be underdeveloped stereotypes. They might gain more weight later in the series. The prose is often trite. That might be the fault of the translator, or it might be that what has become trite in western crime fiction is considered fresh in China.

Tired themes from horror novels (a man burned beyond recognition wanders through the novel) mix with familiar themes of justice (unpunished crimes must be avenged), although whether people (horrific or not) who carry out acts of vengeance outside the law are actually dispensing justice is questionable. Perhaps later novels in the trilogy will explore that question in greater depth; this one ducks the issue, and did too little to persuade me to continue with the remaining novels in the trilogy. Death Notice is interesting, primarily for being set in Chengdu, but it is far from compelling.



Frog by Mo Yan

Published in China in 2009; published in translation by Viking on January 22, 2015

Wan Zu (also known as Tadpole, among other names) writes to a man he addresses as sensei, who gave a lecture on "Literature in Life" in Wan Zu's remote village. Impressed by his meeting with an obstetrician who is Wan Zu's aunt, the scholar asks Wan Zu to send him the story of his aunt's life. Frog tells Gugu's story, but it is also the story of China over the course of Gugu's lifetime.

While she is still a young village girl, Gugu learns the healing arts from a visiting westerner. Her knowledge of obstetrics soon shames the elderly midwives who are more likely to kill their patients than to help them give birth. At the age of 70, forty years after leaving the village, Gugu returns for a celebration.

The politics of China are inseparable from Gugu's story. The background to Book One is the struggle between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek. Gugu is a steadfast Communist. Her advocacy of planned pregnancies and of treating male and female babies as equals impairs her popularity despite its consistency with Mao's edicts. Living in changing times, Gugu discovers that it is possible to a friend of the revolution one moment and an enemy of the masses a moment later.

Book Two begins in 1979. The Cultural Revolution is an unhappy memory but Gugu is still a devoted Party member who is even more committed to the policy of one child per family. The policy of enforced birth control also shapes the story in Book Three. While much of the focus remains on Gugu, the "one child" policy also plays a defining role in the life of Wan Zu.

China has undergone more changes by 2005, when Book Four begins. People are free to live where they please (as long as they live in China). The entrepreneurial spirit prevails, which means family planning rules apply to the poor more than they apply to the nouveau riche. Gugu has also changed, or at least her opinions have changed. Despite her regrets, she remains determined to follow her principles (even as they shift), while Wan Zu has always felt that his life is subject to the whims of fate. Those whims take his life in interesting directions (which, as we all know, is a Chinese curse). By the time Book Five rolls around, Wan Zu has been inspired to write a play that he aptly entitles "Frog." The play adds a new dimension to the story and sheds additional light on some of the characters.

Naturally, frog imagery pervades the novel. Frogs have an impact on the lives of several characters, while other characters recount the role that frogs play in Chinese mythology. Appropriately, given the novel's subject matter, Wan Zu tells us that the title (wa) can be taken as either qingwa (frog) or wawa (baby).

Wan Zu discusses his struggle to write the play throughout the course of the novel. He talks about the darkness of the play when his thoughts are dark, how he wants to write about life rather than death, about hope rather than despair. But life includes all of those things, as does the novel. The story Mo Yan delivers is about persevering in the face of adversity, about feeling and releasing guilt, about adapting to and instigating change. It is also about the value of freedom, even if freedom introduces disharmony into a society that values harmony (and that institutionalizes anyone who threatens that harmony). Frog is a novel of great breadth and depth. It is nothing less than the story of modern China told with humor and compassion.



1988: I Want to Talk to the World by Han Han

Published in China in 1988; published in translation by AmazonCrossing on January 13, 2015

As Lu Ziye sees it, life is like a TV drama, "hastily made and poorly produced, illogical, moving ahead in dreadful fashion, protracted but impossible to give up." Lu Ziye wants to have roots but he is rooted in quicksand and blown in random directions. As he moves from place to place in a vast country "where constant moves are a necessity," he feels he has "faced extinction again and again with each new and foreign environment." Lu Ziye is endlessly starting over, trying to reinvent his life. At the same time, he is endlessly running away from his life.

On one of his journeys, Lu Ziye takes a room for the night and is joined by Nana, a pregnant sex worker. He's later joined by police officers who break down the door, kick him into oblivion, and transport him to an interrogation room. He is released with a warning but Nana has to bribe the police to avoid a reeducation camp. The bribe leaves her penniless and, for reasons that are not quite clear to either of them, Nana accompanies Lu Ziye as a platonic passenger in the station wagon he has named 1988.

Lu Ziye takes occasional breaks from his narrative to share childhood memories of friends and marbles and bullies and pirate radio stations and a girl in a blue skirt he glimpsed before falling from a flagpole. He also recounts his unhappy career as a journalist in a truth-challenged society. During his road trip with Nana, we hear the story of Nana's life. Neither Lu Ziye nor Nana have been particularly lucky at love.

The journey Lu Ziye takes with Nana has a purpose but the reader only learns of it near the end of the novel. It is at that point that we discover how Lu Ziye came to possess 1988. The story in its entirety is less than compelling but some of its component parts are moving and many are amusing.

Much of the novel is light but there is always a sense of dread lurking in the background. While the narrative hints at the omnipresent fear that comes from living in an authoritarian culture, the text is not overtly political. Given the reality of censorship in China, an understated approach is probably the only one Han Han can take. Still, he manages to convey a sense of pervasive oppression. Lu Ziye is not exactly a rebel but he has a rebellious heart. Perhaps he is following his heart as he wanders; perhaps he lacks the courage to follow it to its true destination. At the same time, he admires the courage displayed by friends who are no longer alive.

As is often the case in road trip novels, Lu Ziye's journey seems to represent his journey through life. The novel suggests that friendships are one secret to enduring that life, but for Lu Ziye, friends are just as transient as the rest of his existence. The ending is surprising, cautiously hopeful but far from optimistic. The novel's subtitle -- "I Want to Talk to the World" -- suggests both a sense of futility and the possibility of making a contribution to the ongoing dialog of life, even if that conversation is not the mark we might intend to leave. Then again, given that Han Han is known for his blogging, perhaps the subtitle is meant as a shout from behind a wall that still muffles much of the sound that reaches the western world.