Chatto & Windus, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Lenin's Kisses, By Yan Lianke, trans Carlos Rojas

Open your mind to this epic fable of China in transition. Just don't mention 'magic realism'...

Whenever I pick up an English edition of an epic Chinese novel, the first thing I feel like doing is saluting its hard-headed translator. Such translators – especially those translating into the European languages - are the heroes of East-West cultural bridge-building. Steadfast workers, they often find themselves on the margins of the urban literary world, labouring under badly-paid contracts, researching thousands of years of Asian history and trying to make sense of the chaotic political metaphors of Chinese fabulists. It's said that poetry is untranslatable, but in my opinion a culture and historical aesthetic is even harder to translate.

Get money off this book at the Independent's book shop

Here comes Yan Lianke's latest English edition: Lenin's Kisses, translated by Carlos Rojas. It is the novel Yan wrote in 2003 – the year he left the People's Army Service, and one of the few novels by him not banned in China. The original title was Shou Huo, meaning a sort of bitter pleasure, or pleasure perversely born from a cruel discomfort. It was written in the peasant dialect of He Nan province.

Now you are probably already scratching your head about all this. Even for a Chinese Mandarin reader (Mandarin is based on Beijing dialect), Yan's extensive quotations and footnotes at the end of every chapter present a serious challenge. Consider, then, the task facing the Western translator? Here's a comparable task: it's like translating Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting with its raw Scottish brogue into a northern Chinese dialect and, at the same time, injecting a hundred years of the country's political history in between the lines. But don't be put off by my remarks, or any initial impression – the first chapter is less than two pages, then come five pages of explanatory footnotes, with instructions for further reading. The translator has made efforts to minimise the footnotes but if you can read the Chinese original, it is even longer and more complicated.

Nor must you allow yourself to be frazzled by the fact that there are only odd-numbered chapters and footnotes. Yan skips over all the even ones, suggesting that we are being delivered only the fragmentary remnants of some ill-fated vast fable. Indeed, the novel, even given this fragmentary guise, is a hugely ambitious political fable. If you can ride out the storm of its stylistic idiosyncrasies you will be rewarded, both with a great ripping yarn, but also the kind of raw literary qualities that can only emanate from a non-European tradition.

Lenin's Kisses is set in the late 1990s in the village of Liven. As in the allegorical novel Blindness by José Saramago, the villagers of Liven are all disabled – blind, deaf and crippled. Village Chief Liu promises the locals money if they join him in his ambitious plan to construct a Mausoleum for Lenin to attract tourists. He plans to go to Russia and buy Lenin's corpse and bring it back. In order to raise money, all disabled locals organise a talent circus. Their odd and grotesque performances attach huge crowds. There's a hint of Mao Zedong in Chief Liu's character – at the end of the Cultural Revolution, after smashing old temples and destroying the feudal system, Mao erected a god-like statue for himself. In Lenin's Kisses, as the villagers eventually discover, Chief Liu plans Lenin's Mausoleum not only to be a memorial to Lenin, but also, as an act of extreme egoism, his own final resting place.

Yan Lianke was serving in the People's Army during the creation of most of his novels. He remains a solid, but highly inventive "state writer" inside the Communist system. Still, from Serve the People, a depiction of anguished sexuality within the army, to Dream of Ding Village, about an HIV epidemic in a blood-contaminated village, Yan Lianke maintains an utterly uncompromising stance. It's really a lazy pigeonholing to call this Chinese "magic realism". There is nothing magical about Yan Lianke's realism. And his realism won't leave you feeling you have ever had your feet on solid ground. It's better to think of categories like labyrinthine, or grotesque, or of satire mixed with sadism: the unflinching eye that nevertheless leaves you blinking with the whirling absurdities of the human condition.

Xiaolu Guo's latest novel is 'UFO in Her Eyes'(Vintage)

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?