It is 1957, and we are in a political reeducation camp deep in the Chinese countryside, near the banks of the Yellow River. Re-Ed, as it is called, is crowded with artists, scholars, musicians, and other wayward intellectuals sentenced to hard labor for infractions as petty as playing the arch-bourgeois composer Liszt in public. Attempting escape is punishable by death, and the sentence is essentially open-ended: release depends on cooperation and the never clearly defined achievement of ideological reform. And yet the intellectuals imprisoned in the camp will do anything to hold onto their proscribed books: the Theologian (all characters are referred to by their occupations back in the civilized world) hides a miniature bible inside a carved-out copy of Das Kapital; the Musician sneaks into the fields to read her beloved edition of La dame aux camélias; the Author secretes Balzac under his bed.
This is the vaguely allegorical, sometimes surreal, often intensely cruel setting of The Four Books, the fourth of Chinese writer Yan Lianke’s novels to be translated into English (this one by Carlos Rojas, who also translated 2012’s Lenin’s Kisses). The title, which references both the Christian Gospels and the Confucian Classics, is also meant literally: the novel is a metafiction interwoven from the fragments of four texts written by three different “political criminals” detailing the fate of the camp.
The first of the four books, “Heaven’s Child,” is written by an anonymous prisoner as a neo-biblical pastiche:
The houses of the Re-Ed district were all made from old tiles and bricks, and they were shrouded in light from a primordial chaos. In the vast wilderness, the heavens parted and the earth split open. People settled down here, and so it came to pass. The light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.
Yan seems open to the irony inherent in this kind of grandiloquence: Re-Ed is so far from the capital that it has been all but forgotten by the bureaucrats in Beijing, so humble that it lacks electricity. But his ultimate point seems to be completely earnest: that the story of Re-Ed takes place at the intersection of great moral and historical forces and is thus the equal of anything in Genesis.
The focus of “Heaven’s Child” is the camp’s commandant, an uneducated peasant known simply as the Child. The Child is literally that—a prepubescent teenage boy—but he has a messianic zeal for “reform through labor,” which he equates with destroying any last vestige of high culture in his charges:
Around midday, the Child arrived. People were scattered over the land like so many stars. There were birds flying in the sky. A putrid mist wafted over from the Yellow River. The recently plowed fields gleamed reddish yellow in the sun. Throughout the land there was the smell of centuries-old soil. The people were exhausted, so they squatted down to rest. When everyone saw the Child arrive, they again started working frantically. One person appeared not to notice, so the Child walked over to him and, knowing that this was an author who had written many books, said, “Your works are pure dog shit.”
Pressured by the Child, the Author begins work on a secret report he calls “Criminal Records,” describing the infractions of his fellow inmates in the stereotyped language of Maoist political analysis:
This seemingly calm afternoon of December 26 was actually fraught with class struggle between the capitalists and the proletariat. On the surface, everyone was undergoing labor reform, following the current trends, but in reality the capitalists were secretly cursing and plotting against the proletariat. For instance, I noticed that when the pretty young Musician went to work in the fields, she would always have a copy of La dame aux camélias in her pocket. This is an extremely reactionary novel about a prostitute. Not only had the musician not voluntarily handed over this book, but she even dared to carry it with her when she went down to the fields, and when everyone else was resting she would secretly read the novel, rapt with attention and her eyes full of tears.
Of course, the Author is trying to curry favor with the Child, but he is also swayed by an erotic attraction to the Musician that he does not understand, and the two impulses eventually converge when he reports that the Musician is having an affair with another inmate, the Scholar. Since sex is forbidden in Re-Ed (one of the Child’s Ten Commandments is that “lasciviousness… will not go unpunished,”) the Musician and the Scholar are taken away for punishment.
The author is horrified by what he has done and yet also encouraged by the power that spying seems to offer him: he now imagines himself just an accusation or two away from earning his freedom. Those two contradictory reactions shape the other book he is secretly writing, a true account of his experiences in the prison camp, which he absurdly hopes to publish when he gets out. Entitled “Old Course,” a reference to the Yellow River as an enduring symbol of traditional Chinese culture, it makes up the bulk of The Four Books and is full of well-observed, emotionally evocative scenes. Take for example, the return of the Musician and the Scholar to Re-Ed, dressed in dunce caps and placards decorated with obscene pictures:
The Musician was holding a bottle of iodine, and her face was stained purple… Her red jacket, which she used to keep perfectly clean, was now covered in dust and mud, and cotton stuffing was falling out of the holes in the shoulder and front. The Scholar’s clothes, meanwhile, were not torn, though his face was covered in cuts and bruises from where he had been beaten… In addition, his left wrist was fractured and bound with rope, and he kept it hidden behind the adulterer sign.
As the Scholar and the Musician were being paraded through the streets of every Re-Ed district, the spectators repeatedly demanded that they perform the spectacle of their adultery, and would beat them if they refused. Half a month earlier, they had been two normal people, but now there bore no resemblance to their former selves. The first one to dismount was the Musician, who proceeded to help the Scholar down off the cart. It was at this point that everyone realized the Scholar’s leg was broken, and he would kneel in agony each time he tried to take a step. His eyes, however, were still burning bright, and he gave no indication of wanting to atone for his crimes… I retreated to the back of the crowd, careful not to let my eyes meet those of either the Scholar or the Musician.
The rest of “Old Course” is the story of the Author’s search for some kind of meaningful atonement, one that might possibly set him free psychologically, if not physically. The journey toward that goal is complicated, however, by two cataclysmic events of the period. The first is the Great Leap Forward of 1958, in which the government in Beijing implemented a series of incredibly misguided economic policies aimed at rapid industrialization. The second is the widespread famine that those policies caused, killing tens of millions of people across China. The inmates of Re-Ed are caught up in both events.
Contemporary Chinese fiction tends to overlook the Great Leap and the horrors of the famine that followed, but they are enduring interests of Yan’s. He utilizes them in Lenin’s Kisses and other works, and he makes powerful use of them in The Four Books, sending the prisoners on a mad quest to meet steel production quotas by smelting ore in a ridiculously inadequate homemade furnace. The project is pointless—the steel is of such poor quality that it cannot be used to make anything—and the mismanaged wheat crop likewise withers away. When winter arrives and the government stops sending rations, the prisoners are forced to forage for seeds, then eat their leather shoes, and then cannibalize their dead. The Musician dies inside the now abandoned furnace, selling her body to an official from a neighboring camp for a paper bag of fried chickpeas. The Scholar and the Author are so weak from hunger that they barely have the strength to bury her in a shallow grave so the others can’t eat her.
By the end, the Child chooses to suffer and die for the sins of the Party, in imitation of Jesus: it is as if he’s been reading the pseudo-biblical text of “Heaven’s Child” over our shoulders, misunderstanding at every turn. The Scholar stays to see him through his last agonies, but the others leave the devastated camp in a group led by the Author. “Old Course” finishes with a phantasmagorical escape in which the inmates find themselves moving against a tide of desperate refugees headed toward Re-Ed in search of food: the prisoners break out, in other words, only to learn that the distinction between prison and world no longer matters.
The novel concludes with a fragment of a philosophical treatise written by the Scholar. Called “A New Myth of Sisyphus,” it is exactly that: a riff on Camus’ essay, in which the “Western Sisyphus” of the Existentialists is contrasted with a new “Eastern Sisyphus” who is forced to push his boulder down hill and then watch it roll back up—to live in utter absurdity.
Like much of Yan’s previous work, The Four Books was banned in China, despite the fact that Yan is one of the country’s most celebrated contemporary authors, winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, a finalist for the Man Booker International, and a frequent op-ed contributor on Chinese politics at The New York Times. The novel is driven by a cold fury at the events it recounts, its satire edged with Swiftian moral disgust. It is unsparing in its picture of the ways in which totalitarian habits of thought seep deep into personal relations, and it is smart in its depiction of how intellectuals get co-opted by the system—perhaps informed by Yan’s earlier career, working in the propaganda department of the People’s Liberation Army.
The Four Books can be frustrating. It sometimes has the slightly abstracted feel of fiction self-consciously attempting to grapple with Big Ideas. The more Yan underlines his grand themes, the more remote the emotional lives of his characters become. There were definitely moments when I found myself missing the intimate psychological realism of Serve the People!, Yan’s first book in English, a hilarious, heartbreaking account of an affair between a peasant soldier and his commander’s wife during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, there is something moving about Yan’s desire to honor the suffering of his characters through an embrace of metafictional difficulty—as if the straightforward reality of their pain requires an intellectual filter in order to become bearable. By the end, his fiction of ideas feels hard won and genuine, an expression of sorrow, bafflement, anger, and love.