A social comedy that bleeds like a zombie apocalypse
The Day the Sun Died
By Yan Lianke; Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
Grove. 320 pp. $26
Yan Lianke's mordant novels are effectively banned in China, and his vision of social decay and commercial exploitation is so relevant to life in the United States that we may have to ban them here, too. There is, after all, only so much insight we can tolerate.
Yan once wrote propaganda for the Communist Party, but now he's a subversive critic whose grimly comic works have attracted an audience around the world. A winner of the Kafka Prize and a frequently cited contender for the Nobel, Yan is one of those rare geniuses who finds in the peculiar absurdities of his own culture the absurdities that infect all cultures. He recently told an interviewer for the New Yorker, "To live in China in 2018 is to inhabit a reality that makes you question the very nature of reality," which is also a timely appraisal of America's current climate of "alternative facts."
Yan's latest novel to be translated into English is a poetic nightmare called "The Day the Sun Died." It's the creepiest book I've read in years: a social comedy that bleeds like a zombie apocalypse.
The story takes place during a deadly summer night in a small village in central China. Our narrator is a 14-year-old boy named Li Niannian, whose parents own the New World funerary shop that "sold everything dead people might need." Li confesses that almost everyone refers to him as an idiot, but that's not fair. He may be naive and guileless, but he's no idiot. In fact, he's telling this story himself only because his neighbor, the novelist Yan Lianke, is worn-out and hopeless. (Li tells us he's read all of Yan's books, but the experience is like "asking my eyes to eat rotten fruit" — the first of many self-deprecating jokes.) Until Yan can recover his inspiration, Li will have to fill in. "I have no choice," he tells us, "but to recount everything in a halting, scattered way."
What follows is an artfully organized, minute-by-minute description of "the great somnambulism," a horrific night of sleepwalking that "blotted out the sky and blanketed the earth, leaving everything in a state of chaos." As soon as dusk fades into darkness, the half-conscious inhabitants of Li's village rise again and lumber back to their regular work. "Everyone appeared to be very busy," Li says. "Very, very busy." With her eyes closed, Li's mother madly cuts paper wreaths for the dead. Li's uncle frantically threshes wheat in his sleep while chanting: "A man can't let his wife and children go hungry. A man can't let his wife and children go hungry."
These are the driven and joyless "dreamwalkers" of the modern economy, terrified — even in sleep — of falling behind, of losing a single sale or the smallest wage. This ironic allusion to "the Chinese Dream" — President Xi Jinping's national slogan — is just the kind of sly protest that keeps Yan's novels suppressed in his native country.
As the minutes click by, the village descends further into violence and madness. Suicides, murders and assaults tear the night silence, and half-awake thieves roam the dark streets hoping to rob their half-awake neighbors. All moral concerns and social inhibitions are suspended in the narcissism of sleep. "The world," Li says in his usual deadpan, "had become an exceedingly strange place."
A macabre subplot pushes this theme even further into the realm of the grotesque that stretches from Jonathan Swift to Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. A land-reform ban on burying the dead in Li's village has provoked widespread cheating and tremendous resentment against the man who owns the crematorium. What's worse, this wealthy owner secretly collects and sells "corpse oil" extracted from the village's incinerated bodies. The whole enterprise is a gruesome parody of government and corporate synergy that drains the life from ordinary people. Whether they'll ever attain any retribution offers a grim element of suspense as Li waits for the sun to rise again.
But I can't emphasize enough the sheer weirdness of this story. Although we never see the sleeping visions that torment Yan's characters, we move with Li through the viscous atmosphere of dreams. Before long, we're hypnotized by the warped logic of nightmares. (Corpse oil? Sure, that must be a thing.) The dimensions of the village shrink and stretch in impossible ways. The ordinary laws of the natural world erratically droop into surrealism.
Yan's understated wit runs through these pages like a snake through fallen leaves, but if you don't appreciate the harmonic repetitions of his narrative, it will seem maddeningly dull. And if you insist on traditional character development, you will be completely disappointed. You either fall under this incantation, or you break away in frustration.
The novel's style poses special challenges, too. The plot's dreaminess is emphasized by Yan's repeated phrases, relentless recycling and extraordinarily metaphoric language.
In his acceptance speech for the Kafka Prize in 2014, Yan said that he wants to be "like the blind man with the flashlight who shines his light into the darkness to help others glimpse their goal and destination."
"The Day the Sun Died" may not illuminate our goal, but it's a wake-up call about the path we're on.
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