The Uninvited, by Geling Yan

Banquets and bungs in China's poisoned paradise
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Enter a world where builders on massive construction projects wait months to be paid, where you might find yourself using soya sauce made from human hair, where journalists are openly paid massive bribes to plug dodgy products, and luckless citizens are executed when they become a hindrance.

In Geling Yan's powerful and unrelenting second novel, the young "reserve worker" Dan Dong stumbles across this bizarre and terrifying landscape. Waiting for a job interview as a security guard, he is mistaken for a journalist and ushered into a banqueting hall. This is contemporary China, where patrons of wildlife organisations, beer companies and pharmaceutical conglomerates throw lavish banquets for the press, who are given discreet envelopes of cash. When Dan discovers that the money earned from eating his way through exquisite meals pays more than his factory job, he invents a newspaper title on a business card and joins the other "banquet bugs". As with Jerzy Kozinski's Chance the Gardener in Being There, the other journalists begin to interpret his silence as wisdom, and his knowledge about rural life as investigative prowess.

Armed with a fake camera and an empty tape recorder, Dan does, ironically, begin to produce stories with the help of the canny Happy Gao, a dissident freelancer. But even Dan cannot remain aloof from the seductive powers of the voracious corporations who feed him. Soon his conscience is torn between a desire to expose the deprivation of the farmers, and the inflated rewards of publishing lies for the new entrepreneurs.

Along the way, Dan befriends Old Ten, a country girl who has become a foot masseuse and sex worker. Just as the peasants work themselves into early graves to appease corrupt Party cadres, women like Old Ten risk danger to feed their families. The novel culminates in a banquet scene where an elite group of journalists are invited to feed from the backs and breasts of young female models lying on beds of ice.

Yan uses electrifying metaphors to expose the hypocrisy of contemporary China. There is, for example, the stark contrast between the boiled peachtree worms and acacia flowers of Dan's impoverished childhood and the sensual culinary delights of the "raw veal on jellyfish, set on bone-white, paper-thin china". As Dan ingests these exquisite morsels, his innocence is poisoned, and the novel hinges on whether he can preserve his moral identity.

Yan also exposes the struggle of Chinese journalists to write about the ruthless machinery of repression. Like characters in Kafka or Orwell, Dan is constantly on his guard against forces that threaten to spin out of control; and he is, inevitably, doomed. But his plight seems to offer a universal truth in this rare and courageous novel, where uncom- fortable realities slip down as easily as shark's fin soup.