To be a writer in China is to work under the shadow of censorship, what Perry Link once called the “anaconda in the chandelier”. The fear of the serpent striking from above has induced many a publisher and novelist to censor themselves or write works that align with the “main melody”, taken from the PRC’s officially sanctioned songbook. Yan Lianke, a prolific Chinese satirist, stands out in this regard. His novels dance on the hot tin roof of controversial subjects such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine. They are, admittedly, also largely banned in China, but the fact that he has managed to write them while remaining in Beijing makes him something of a living paradox.
This ability to keep partly under the radar has something to do with Yan’s skill at sowing metaphysical mondegreens, his propensity to scatter his works with Communist aphorisms, twisting their meanings and dropping crumbs of implication along the way. His novels often carry titles that wink at canonical texts or Maoist slogans, only to reveal in their pages a deliberately jarring relation to the source material. In Hard Like Water (2021), whose title alludes to the Taoist classic the Tao Te Ching, a cascade of events is set in motion when a character thinks to himself (echoing a famous dictum from Chairman Mao): “It must have been precisely in order to wait for me that she had been sitting there holding up half the sky all day”.
Yan’s latest novel to be translated into English, Heart Sutra, is a Bildungsroman wrapped in a fable wrapped in a morality play. In the spirit of the Buddhist text that shares its name, Heart Sutra (which first appeared in Chinese in 2020) embraces paradox, impermanence and the ways in which the human and divine realms mutually constitute each other. Its outer shell is a parable, presented as the prologue, in which a crucified Jesus tells the Virgin Mary, Buddha, Dao and the Prophet Muhammad that his suffering is meant to show humans that they too must endure suffering. Two cosmic messengers – the Daoist deity Laozi and Bodhisattva Guanyin – subsequently enact scenes of anguish in papercut illustrations that are interleaved between chapters forming the main narrative, which unfolds in a religious training centre in the fictional National Politics University in Beijing. Here, advanced disciples of the five main Chinese religions – Daoism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam – have convened to study each others’ creeds. Frequent tug-of-war games are held at the behest of the centre’s Director Gong, who labours on a Casaubon-like monograph intended to show the salutary effects of physical competition in promoting understanding. Predictably, the games lose their capacity for edification when monetary incentives are introduced.
Not all the clerical leaders condone the inter-sect athletic events in which they are required to participate. One of the earliest casualties is Jueyu shifu, a Buddhist nun who is hospitalized little more than a week after arriving on campus. She is the mentor to one of the book’s protagonists, Yahui, who starts off as a naive eighteen-year-old who spends her free time making papercut illustrations. At the university Yahui strikes up a romance with a Daoist adept named Gu Mingzheng, who is caught in the incongruous position of wanting to “return to secular life” while studying at a centre designed to thwart such desires. A desultory student, he embarks on a quest to track down his biological father, who gave him up as an infant. Along the way he encounters a shadowy People’s Liberation Army retiree named Nameless, a Woland-like agent of chaos.
Yan works in a mode he calls “mythorealism”, thickening his narrative batter with large doses of fable, allegory, history and fantasy. More than some of his previous books, Heart Sutra suffers from an unevenness of style. The prose, rendered into English by Carlos Rojas, is bogged down with clichés, the sentences jammed with similes in a way that pitches the book towards melodrama. More unhappily, Yan betrays a blind spot when it comes to female interiority. On the verge of purchasing an apartment in Beijing, Yahui feels “as excited and anxious as though she were about to have her period”. Western readers in particular may bristle at how Yahui decides to deal with a violation of her body late in the novel. The act, when it happens, seems to be driven more by symbolic necessity than human psychology.
Such weaknesses badly – if not quite fatally – mar a meandering and philosophical novel that otherwise moves swiftly and engagingly along.
Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Republic and the White Review, among others
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