Communist theme park featuring Lenin's corpse is setting for novel

Yan Lianke's absurdist novel set in China in the 1990s centres on a bizarre effort to purchase the body of Russia's most iconic revolutionary, writes Jamie Kenny.

The embalmed body of the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader and Soviet Union founder Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in the mausoleum that bears his name in Moscow's Red Square. AFP
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Lenin's Kisses
Yan Lianke (translated by Carlos Rojas)
Grove Press

The main plotline of Yan Lianke's Lenin's Kisses involves a village of disabled people organised into a travelling freak show exhibit by a Communist Party official who wants to raise money to buy Lenin's corpse and put it on display, thereby attracting "Red Tourists" to a remote part of rural China and making everybody rich. So it's not surprising that critical opinion on Yan's work has tended to put it in the absurdist, magical realist quadrant of literature, as something designed to expose what is by writing about what cannot be.

In fact, there's a case for saying that Lenin's Kisses is a good example of the author as naturalist, and something of a prophet as well. The book was originally published in China in 2004 and is set at the end of the 1990s. In 2009, something called Dwarf Empire opened near the city of Kunming in southern China. It's a kind of real-life Land of Oz complete with munchkins, singing, dancing and generally cavorting about in a charmingly vertically challenged manner for tourists. Just to make things more bizarre, just to give it that authentic capitalism under communism touch, Dwarf Empire is partly owned by a local biotechnology company.

So there is nothing magical about Yan's realism. In fact, he's as surreal as Chinese reality itself. He's also a detailed observer of everyday rural life under Communist Party of China folk. There are pin-sharp portrayals of the informal speech patterns of lower level cadres, a combination of pointless swearing and boastful rhetorical questions. He notes that Chinese bosses who reach a certain level tend to dress like they have fallen out of a laundry basket while requiring perfect sartorial correctness from their underlings.

There is, however, no such place as the village of Liven, the Under Milk Wood-style sanctuary established in the remote Balou Mountains by a small group of disabled people allowed to drop out of a Ming Dynasty era forced relocation scheme, and it seems out of Chinese society altogether. The village attracts the crippled and the lame: all learn to prosper together under whatever imperial China has for radar. That changes with the arrival of Mao Zhi, a veteran of the People's Liberation Army's struggle against the Kuomintang before 1949. Mao is still an enthusiastic revolutionary: at her insistence Liven rejoins society under the New China. And so the trouble starts.

Much of the trouble is told through footnotes woven into the text through supposed explanation of Henanese dialect terms; it's here we learn what happens to Liven when the cadres turn up to hunt for counter-revolutionaries or confiscate everybody's kitchen goods to force them into production brigades. Fifty years of this convince Mao and the villagers that it's high time they dropped out of society again. For that to happen, they have to accept a deal offered by County Chief Liu. Liu is what the Scots would call a son of the manse, only more so; adopted as a baby by the principal of the local party school and raised in a kind of supersaturated solution of CPC internal culture to the point where it never occurs to him that he might not have an absolute entitlement to as much power as he can get.

This does not stop Liu from harking back to older conceptions of power. He worships the communist elders in a personal hall of devotion; his inner life resounds with the constant knock of heads, as his grateful flock perpetually kowtow to him in gratitude for his fatherly care.

Again, this is plausibility rather than fantasy. Reporting on the recent 119th anniversary celebrations of Mao Zedong's birth, the state-owned Global Times noted that the people of Mao's home village hung his picture next to the Buddha, and that the celebrating pilgrims slurped "birthday noodles" in his honour to ensure success in the forthcoming year's business ventures. Yan's fictional village of Liven was founded during a forced march. From Yan's perspective it's been a forced march ever since for China, in one direction or other.

County Chief Liu intends to march the residents of his county towards prosperity in a way common in China's scenic but destitute regions. "Given that we have neither factories nor mines, we must therefore use our scenery to manufacture pleasure," he tells his boss. In real life, and when not rounding up persons of restricted growth, officials often do this by attaching their locality to some officially glorious incident in the Communist Party's history. None of these being available locally, Liu decides to buy Lenin, who he has heard the Russians don't want anymore.

The bodies of immortal revolutionaries still don't come cheap. To raise the money he cajoles the villagers of Liven to adapt the ways in which they have built on their disabilities and form a touring freak show for degrading but profitable tours among the nouveau riche of China's cities.

It would be a disservice to give away the rest in detail. Let's say that a period of delirious success is followed by an inevitable collapse in the hopes of both the villagers and County Chief Liu. At one stage the villagers are besieged in the empty mausoleum built to house Lenin, the money they earned by humiliating themselves on tour extracted slowly from them under threat of starvation. Eventually they creep away, and are finally allowed to withdraw from society. Overall, an unnatural but inevitable law of authoritarianism reasserts itself: the weak are always meek and the strong are always hungry. This doesn't mean that the book is intended as undiluted tragedy. Yan's work often displays a very broad streak: 2008's Serve the People, for instance, explores what happens when people interpret the old Maoist bromide as an urgent injunction to constant sex. Lenin's Kisses is partly what happens when your subject matter is inevitably tragic but you happen to approach it with an irrepressible sense of fun. To adapt an old saying, tragedy is what happens when you fall off a cliff; comedy is part of what happens when everybody falls off the same cliff.

The book can be read and enjoyed without being read into; but part of its achievement is the establishment of a perfect Russian-doll critique of China's authoritarian tradition: the contemporary drive to prosperity by whatever means necessary depends on the same vertical power that once imposed revolutionary tyranny, which in turn rests on the bedrock of the permanent utilisation of the ruled by the rulers sedimented over centuries of China's imperial history. The same streak of organised cruelty is common throughout: at times monstrously amplified, at other times streamlined in more rational directions. The book is both a great tragicomic fable and a sustained anarchist critique. In one of his definitions of supposed Henanese slang terms, Yan refers to a time of loose earth as a utopian "state of existence where one eats what one grows ... and has no relationship whatsoever with the government."

At the time he expressed these sentiments, Yan was a political officer in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which is not the place one would expect to find such Tolstoyan opinions: indeed on publication of the book he was told to leave. Yet the PLA has been a means for many people with poor peasant backgrounds like Yan's to make their way. In fact, it's a background he shares with Nobel Prize for literature winner Mo Yan. Both are from peasant backgrounds, both served in the PLA, both are committed to the idea that their locality (Yan in Henan, Mo in Shandong) provides a suitably sharp prism through which to illuminate Chinese society.

Yan is less involved in China's official writing world than Mo. It is unlikely that if he were to follow in Mo's footsteps he would do so with an endorsement of censorship, as Mo did when he received his prize. On his personal blog, he has described China's censorship system as a form of "slow castration". And in his introduction, translator Carlos Rojas notes that all the chapters in Lenin's Kisses have odd numbers, suggesting that a different book could have been written under a less intrusive system. But it would be wrong - as well as mean-spirited - to approach the book assuming that it is partly a negative creation of the censors. There is too much in it to worry about what might have been left out, and much of it will secure your enjoyment. All of it deserves your attention.

Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China and its growing interaction with the rest of the world.