Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2020

The Years, Months, Days, by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas

Over at Madame Bibliophile Recommends it’s her annual Novella a Day in May, and once again I am lost in admiration for someone who can keep this up, posting entertaining reviews of novellas day after day.  My little contribution is a book that’s been on my shelves for only a little while: brought to us by Melbourne’s Text Publishing, it’s Yan Lianke’s The Years, Months, Days, ably translated by Carlos Rojas who also translated four of the five novels I’ve read by this author: The Day the Sun Died; The Explosion Chronicles; The Four Books; and Lenin’s Kisses

The novella is a fable of only 97 pages, but as always with Yan Lianke there is more to it than meets the eye.  It’s the poignant story of an old man of 72, and a stray dog, living alone in a village that everyone else has abandoned because of drought.  A traditional way of peasant life and the absence of utilities like running water and electricity create a sense of timelessness.  But as Rojas explains in the brief introduction, this is a way of life still in living memory.  Famine was a fact of life in the poor rural community in which Yan Lianke grew up.  

Yan was born in 1958, the first year of The Great Leap Forward—a political campaign that was intended to jumpstart China’s economy but instead precipitated the Great Famine, in which tens of millions of Chinese starved to death in a three-year period. (p.viii)

You will never again be able to see those words ‘The Great Leap Forward’ without remembering the story of this old man, and his heroic efforts to save himself and the dog, and preserve some corn seed for the day when the villagers come back, even if he is not alive to witness it. For young people in China, born decades after the catastrophe, The Years, Months, Days is a vivid evocation of what it was like for their parents and grandparents.

In this apocalyptic landscape, there is just one corn seed, its fragile shoots requiring tremendous effort to keep it sufficiently watered and to stave off the intense rays of the sun—so strong that they have blinded the dog.   Bonded together in their battle against starvation, the man and the dog fight off other animals: hordes of rats, and a chilling episode with wolves.  Despite the Elder’s wisdom and ingenuity, each passing day is harder and harder.   When you remember that this was daily life for millions, and that millions did not survive it, it’s very confronting to read.

After the sprout grew two new leaves, the Elder returned to the village to look for something to eat.  There wasn’t a single grain of wheat in his home.  He thought that in such a large village, even if each household had only a handful of grain or a pinch of flour, this would be enough for him and the blind dog to survive this devastating drought. However, when he returned to the village, he discovered that the door to each house was locked, and there were cobwebs everywhere.  He returned to his own house.  He knew perfectly well that the flour jug had been swept clean, but he still peered inside, then reached in and felt around.  After he pulled out his hand, he stuck his fingers in his mouth and sucked on the, and the pure white taste of wheat blossomed in his mouth and surged through his body.  He took a deep breath and inhaled the fragrant scent, then went outside and stood in the street.  The sun’s rays shone down, flowing through the village like a river of gold.  In the deathly silence, the Elder heard the sound of sunlight dripping through the roof.  He thought indignantly, everyone in the entire mountain ridge has fled, and the thieves have either starved to death or died of thirst… (p.17) 

And yet…

The fable celebrates courage, compassion, a sense of duty and pride in accomplishment.

This book won Mainland China’s triannual Lu Sun Literary Prize in 2001, and is one of Lianke’s best-known books.  It’s a superb introduction to this author’s work.

Author: Yan Lianke
Title: The Years, Months Days
Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
Cover design by W H Chong
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017, first published in 1997
ISBN: 9781925603125, pbk., 97 pages, with an introduction by Carlos Rojas
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $19.99

 


Responses

  1. Only Yan Lianke would have his character call his blind dog Blindy. Lianke has become one of my favorite authors, not for that reason but several others. .

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    • Yes, there’s a blunt earthiness about Lianke’s writing. Which is strange because it gives the impression of being frank and open, when really it’s designed to make it difficult for the Chinese censors to ban it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read Satantango not so long ago. This novella has a similar feel, from what you say.

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    • I tried to read that one, and could not get on with it at all. Which really surprised me because I was expecting to like it. I’ll give it another try if I ever come across it again…

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  3. This sounds wonderful Lisa. I find the whole premise so moving, I will bear it mind for my reading in next year’s novella month. Thanks so much for the mention and for joining in!

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  4. This sounds very like The Four Books – particularly the ‘apocalyptic landscape’. That makes for some difficult reading at points.

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    • Hi Grant, thanks for stopping by:)
      Yes, I can’t check this because I think it was in the intro and I’ve already donated the book, but I think Rojas says that it was a precursor to the Four Books. It’s taken longer to be translated, this was first published in 1997 and not translated for 20 years.

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  5. […] was led to this novella by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers Lit Blog and highly recommend it.  I remember reading about the disastrous impact of The Great Leap […]

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