You will know if you read my Sensational Snippet yesterday, that Lenin’s Kisses, by Yan Lianke is a terrific book. It’s destined to be one of my top books for 2013.
Yan Lianke is the author of Dream of Ding Village, which was longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize, and shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize. (See my review). He lives in China, but is able to skirt censorship to write witty fables exposing corruption and greed – so far, without interference. However, in Lenin’s Kisses, he has adopted a cunning strategy to allude to the constraints under which he works.
As soon as you start reading the novel, you subliminally notice something strange about it. Without being conscious of it, experienced readers somehow absorb all kinds of sub-texts as they read, and in its very first sentence Lenin’s Kisses inverts one of the conventions we all know really well:
Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven,  it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow. 
Can you see it?
It’s the footnotes. It’s not my typo: No 2 is deliberately omitted. There are no even-numbered footnotes throughout the whole book, nor are there any even-numbered chapters. If you’re reading the Text Publishing edition with the introduction by the translator Carlos Rojas, you know this before you start reading. He says that this discontinuous numbering is Yan Lianke’s way of expressing ‘the tragic sentiment of the novel’, but he also says that it can also be interpreted as an allusion to censorship in China, reminding us that there are things unsaid in the novel. And this technique really works. The brain is so used to expecting the normal sequence that each time this expectation is inverted – even though the reader has been told about it beforehand – the brain objects, and you start a quick flick back over the text to look for the missing number or the missing chapter before you remember that no, it’s not you, you haven’t missed it. The footnote isn’t there – and it’s not there for a reason. It’s a very effective technique to highlight the self-censorship that Lianke employs in order to be able to publish. It also heightens the sense of absurdity that underlies this strange tale.
‘Liven‘ is an interesting word: it’s a translation from the dialect of western Henan and the Balou Mountains in eastern Henan. Lianke’s footnote tells us that it means to experience ‘enjoyment happiness and passion‘ but it also has connotations of ‘finding pleasure in discomfort or making pleasure out of discomfort‘. One word, perhaps, to mean collectively ‘making the best of things‘. This first sentence, and the absent footnote  hints us that it’s not just the unseasonal weather that makes it difficult to ‘liven‘. You don’t need to know much about China’s 20th century history to know that ‘livening‘ must have been the only way, psychologically, to survive it. And that at times, ‘livening‘ simply wasn’t possible.
The setting in Henan is significant too. Henan is the birthplace of Chinese civilisation and for centuries was its cultural, economic and political centre. I have never been to China, much less Henan, but (thank you, Wikipedia) it’s apparently littered with ancient ruins, including Yinxu which was the capital city during the Shang Dynasty in the second millennium BC, and the Shaolin Temple founded in the 5th century. There are also four of the Eight Great Ancient Capitals of China in the province so there is a rich cultural heritage to protect.
Why, therefore, would anyone want to import Lenin’s corpse from Russia and build a tacky theme park around the mausoleum that houses it? Why indeed…
Wikipedia tells me that Henan is so huge it would be a whole country anywhere else but China, and has the 5th largest provincial economy based on mining, agriculture, heavy industry, tourism and retail. But it’s considered backward (i.e. undeveloped), due in part to its unfortunate location, smack in the middle of every major war and suffering major damage every time the Yellow River floods (which is often) . (One of its Ancient Capitals, Kaifeng, has apparently been buried under silt seven times because of these floods). In the modern era, one of the dams was bombed in one of the wars causing massive flooding and a subsequent famine. Typhoon Nina overwhelmed 62 dams in the 1950s, causing flooding, subsequent epidemics and famine, and countless thousands died. Add to all that Mao’s disastrous economic policies such as The Great Leap Forward and it’s easy to see why in the 1970s Henan was one of the poorest provinces in China at a time when China was one of the poorest countries in the world.
Henan was slow to embrace Deng Xiaoping‘s open door policy but its poverty-stricken villagers were not slow to adopt the practice of making blood donations for payment. In Dream of Ding Village Yan Lianke exposed the venality of the state-run program whose HIV-contaminated equipment caused a disastrous epidemic of AIDS among the peasants. The province is catching up, but is still impoverished, and in Lenin’s Kisses one of the wily officials of the region thinks that tourism is the way to go. And so begins the hilarious quest of Chief Liu to import Lenin’s corpse from cash-strapped Russia and create a revenue-raising tourist attraction with a swanky new mausoleum (plus theme park, plus Liu’s own portrait hanging amid assorted Communist luminaries, plus his own crystal coffin ready and waiting for his own much-to-be-lamented demise. )
Finding the funds is a bit of a problem until Chief Liu discovers the village of Liven. The people of Liven have been living in what passes for a kind of Paradise in China, because for a long time their isolation up in the remote Balou mountains meant that they were able to escape the notice of the new Communist government. For centuries they survived in a pure kind of communism of their own, in which the disabled population combined their resources and talents to eke out a living that was, well, not bad, by Henan standards. They went through some terrible times first under collectivisation and then underThe Great Leap Forward in 1958 (known locally in Liven as ‘The Year of the Great Plunder’ and ‘The Iron Smelting Disaster’ ) but collective memory has dimmed, and only Grandma Mao Zhi is keen to revert to their pre-’Liberation’ status and be ’Withdrawn from Society’ i.e. not part of the Communist system.
At the time the story starts, there are 197 disabled people who live in Liven, who want for nothing much because there is nothing much to want. But the unseasonal weather brings exceptional floods, and when the village can’t hold its annual Livening Festival it means that things really are too bad to be borne. The head honcho of the local Party, Chief Liu turns up to massage his own ego by distributing disaster relief funds, taking careful note of who applauds his munificence and who doesn’t. It’s while he is there that Chief Liu discovers the clever ways the villagers circumvent their disabilities and he decides to turn them into a freak show to fund the acquisition of the corpse. First, of course, he has to teach them greed and acquisitiveness, and he seduces their acquiescence to his bizarre plans by offering them so much money that they cannot possibly spend it all. (We here in Australia have a couple of mining giants who have this problem.)
Grandma Mao Zhi (whose name probably has some additional symbolism in Chinese) represents the idealism of the Communist movement. She was one of the Red Army that made The Long March, and she has the respect of the villagers if not an official title. Time and again she persuades the villagers to cooperate with the madness of Mao, only to see disaster befall them. Lianke has a comic touch, and much of this satirical novel will make you smile with wry amusement, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to blink back a tear for the sufferings of the ordinary people who were victims of China’s disastrous 20th century under Mao.
As we enter the so-called Asian Century, novels like this one have a special import because they reveal aspects of life in China that we need to know about. Rarely has learning history been as enjoyable; this is a beaut novel. Immensely readable, with unforgettable characters.
Don’t miss it.
Author: Yan Lianke
Title: Lenin’s Kisses
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing
Fishpond: Lenin’s Kisses
You can read another extract and the translator’s introduction on the Text Publishing website.