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.
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)