Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 29, 2018

The Day the Sun Died, by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas #BookReview

I’ve read a few of Yan Lianke’s satirical novels now, each one seeming darker than the last.  But even though there was always a sense that the black humour had a tinge of desperation about it, there were always moments of comic absurdity to lighten the tone.

Links here are in order I read the novels, and also (as far as I can make out) in order of their English translation.

But The Day the Sun Died is relentlessly bleak.

At first I was puzzled by the title.  After all, when our sun dies, it will be long after our demise.  All living things will be burnt to a crisp beforehand without the opportunity to see the lights go out.  So of course the title is allegorical.  It refers to the irretrievable end of everything we hold dear…

The story is framed around a surreal night in the Balou Mountains when mass somnambulism occurs in the village of Gaotian.  Narrated by a 14-year-old boy called Li Niannan who observes the chaos, the phenomenon – known as dreamwalking – results in acts of malice, revenge, vandalism, looting and murder as people act out their rivalries, greed, depravity and despair.  There are multiple deaths because people hurl themselves into the canal, are assaulted during the lawlessness, are deliberately killed in order to satisfy some murky desire, or die in the culminating battle between rival factions and out-of-towners keen to exploit the situation.  The complete breakdown of law and order sees the Village Chief trying to enlist Niannan’s father in a murder he wants to commit; the police literally asleep on the job; and the town government cadres acting out their fantasies of power in the ‘good old days’ – under an emperor who brought them peace, prosperity, bountiful harvests and unrestrained power over the lives and deaths of others.  And ultimately, out-of-towners take advantage of the situation, and all hell breaks loose.

Lianke uses the Chinese government’s insistence on cremation over burial as a symbol of irretrievable loss.  Like many cultures, Chinese culture has a long tradition of reverence for the dead being expressed in burial customs.  The government, however, (perhaps mindful of past famines and its expanding population) insists on every bit of arable land being used productively and burial is outlawed.  Niannan’s uncle makes a lot of money out of running the town’s crematorium, and his father – not satisfied with his business selling funerary paraphernalia such as paper flowers – has a profitable sideline informing about covert burials so that the authorities can exhume or blow up the bodies and have them cremated as decreed.  He also stores the corpse oil which Uncle says can be onsold profitably for industrial and possibly other more dubious uses, but the connotations of potential cannibalism offends Father’s scruples so he just stores it in a cave.  (As far as I know body fats and oils combust along with everything else during cremation, but this is not something into which I want to enquire too deeply.)

Anyway, the ancient customs, like the bodies, are gone forever.

Reading a Lianke novel always requires an awareness of metaphor.  The death of the sun is an obvious metaphor for the cataclysmic effect of political corruption and excess in China.  But there are other allusions to particular aspects of Chinese history.  Niannan’s father, for example, while dreamwalking, suffers a crisis of guilt during the night.  Having successfully concealed his activities for a decade, he goes round the town confessing his sin and pleading for robust punishment.  I shouldn’t have been surprised by the sanguine reception to these confessions – it’s as if Lianke’s characters are all so resigned to corruption and greed that yes, they might be satisfied by an apology because that’s all they might realistically expect.  But I think it’s also an oblique allusion to the failure of successive Chinese leaders to take responsibility for the wrongs of the past.  Though there is still much unfinished business, including here in Australia, some Western governments have at the very least acknowledged past wrongs with apologies, treaties, truth and justice commissions and so on.  But as far as I know, there’s never been any attempt at healing within China for the excesses of Mao’s disastrous policies which led to the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen Massacre).

Yan Lianke himself makes an appearance as a neighbour in this novel.  Niannan, perhaps representing an indifferent reading public, tells him in no uncertain terms that his novels are too ‘chilling’ and have too much yin; that no one likes them; no one reads them from beginning to end; that any classic book is better than any of them; and that they are completely worthless.  While the fictional Lianke is dreamwalking, he suffers from the agonies of writer’s block, and only his mother understands how desperate he feels about it.  He ends up playing an important role in the final redemptive scene, but overall he seems like an intrusive character not really intrinsic to the story and its purposes.

BEWARE: MINOR SPOILER (about something that seems to have no significance) 

The novel has other flaws too. There are clumsy similes, such as when a shadow goes round a wall as if a log had fallen into a gully, or when a voice sounds like dust falling from a brick and flying everywhere. There are also odd little fragments that make no sense at all.  For example, at one stage, Father straps to his leg, a sole, a knife and some bamboo strips.  Why?  We never find out what this is for.  We learn from a snippet at the beginning that the narrator is searching for Little Juanzi who has gone missing; in the middle of the novel we discover that she works at the crematorium (so she’s not a little kid as first thought) and that this bookloving boy fancies her but disdains her buckteeth and illiteracy.  Then at the end there’s a reunion amongst a carpet of flowers.  What’s that about?

I was also not best pleased to read, when the parents are confronted by scenes of depravity, that Mother yells out that there are plenty of Western-style women available for that elsewhere in South Street, presumably the red light district.  When I was at university in Indonesia I encountered this attitude that Western women are always sexually available to any man that wants them, and I find this stereotyping highly offensive.

Still, flaws notwithstanding, this is an interesting book that held my attention from beginning to end.

And *wink* Lianke might be pleased to hear that!

Author: Yan Lianke
Title: The Day the Sun Died
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018, first published 2015
ISBN: 9781925603859
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Responses

  1. ENJOYED THE BOOK AND LOVED THE COVER, CHINA

  2. I seem to remember reading in one of Caitlin Doughty’s books that body fat doesn’t always combust – apparently especially with larger bodies, the molten fat sometimes flows out of the furnace and has to be caught in special boxes. (Yum!)

    • Gee thanks, Elle, *laughing* I’m not sure I wanted to know that…

      • Yeah, sorry! (I had no contribution to make about the book, so…)

        • *smile* Forgiven…

  3. I guess your reaction to that stereotyping is just how many Asian women feel for sexual stereotyping of them? I guess “they” see Western women as “up for sex” (because of how they dress for a start) whilst western men stereotypically see Asian women as “sexy” and willing (or, at least, able/ready) to be exploited??

    • Of course… sexual stereotyping is widespread. But as with racism, anti-Semitism etc, I call it out when I see it. And I think it’s particularly egregious (in literature, that is) when a notable author uses a female character to represent it.

      • Agree, unless that’s the point, if you know what I mean! Sometimes it can be hard to tell. I recollect not liking Kundera for his representation of women back in the 80s or 90s and haven’t read him since.

        • Yes, I still haven’t quite got over my dismay at Thiong’o’s representation of women. He’s such a hero of post-colonial literature, and readers like Joe at Rough Ghosts admire him enormously, but my hackles rose with both the novels I read, and that’s it, as far as I’m concerned.

          • Haha, Lisa, there are limits aren’t there!

  4. As you probably know Yan Lianke is one of my new favorite authors. ‘Four Books’ awakened him to me, and I’ve read ‘The Years, Months Days’ since. Apparently you discovered him before I did.

    • I haven’t read that one… it gets a mention in this book too.
      I discovered him when Stu from Winston’s Dad asked me to be on a Shadow Jury for the (now defunct( Man Asian Literary Prize. I discovered so many good authors through that prize, it’s a real shame that the funding lapsed and they couldn’t get a new sponsor.

  5. It has always interested me that anti government writers in authoritarian societies use satire – as though their meaning was hidden from all but insiders and that protected them from sanction. Of course, good on them if they can get away with it.

    • I think Lianike sails a bit close to the wind: this novel and some of his others aren’t published in mainland China…


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