Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi
As far as opening scenes go, this one is captivating: “Look, in the middle of a sweltering summer, when people couldn’t liven, it suddenly started snowing. This was hot snow.” Not the novel’s bizarre sounding name — Lenin’s Kisses — but my encounter with its opening line drew me towards it. I sat in the audience of London’s Southbank Centre hearing an actor read from Lenin’s Kisses while the author Yan Lianke followed in the original Mandarin as a part of the London Literary Festival and a curtain raiser to the Man Booker International Prize celebration.
Lianke did not speak a word of anything except Chinese, yet remained a remarkable presence during the programme through his interpreters.
The opening scene of Lenin’s Kisses, powerful as it is, did not prepare me for what follows. Summer-time snow? It must be magical realism coming to China, I thought, but then recalled Mikhail Bulgakov’s powerful and symbolic Black Snow, an unforgettable 20th century Russian masterpiece. But Lenin’s Kisses pushes aside all comparisons, moving on a course entirely its own.
The book carries a blurb from Ha Jin, the Chinese novelist whose gritty realism I admire very much. He says that “the publication of this magnificent work in English should be an occasion for celebration.” Overwhelmed by its sheer opulence, my initial reaction was that Lenin’s Kisses could be Ha Jin re-imagined by Gogol in his most mature phase when he conceived of Dead Souls. I cannot think of any other comparisons for this book which I agree is moving as well as magnificent. And more so, it is immensely sad, to the extent that I had to occasionally stop reading and take a break before continuing.
Midsummer snow heralds a disaster for the village, sinking it deeper into poverty as the author piles up details creating an overbearing effect. But the scheme to end this deprivation is no less fantastic. Somebody in the village reads in an old newspaper that the Russian government is facing a shortage of funds for the maintenance of the tomb in which Lenin lies embalmed. The idea is born that if the village could buy Lenin’s corpse and make a tomb for it at the top of the Spirit Mountain it would become a tourist attraction and a source of permanent revenue. The scheme to generate the required funds for this project is even more bizarre — to set up a performing troupe of the disabled people who abound in this village and who all seem to have a special talent. While Secretary Shi is sceptical at first, the township chief argues thus: “Have you ever seen red dates growing on a peach tree? Or a one-legged man outrun a two-legged one? Or a blind person who can use his hearing to find where everything is? Do you believe any of this? Or a deaf person who, by feeling your ears with his fingertips, can hear everything you are saying? Or someone who has been dead for seven days and buried for four, but is still able to come back to life? Have you ever seen anything like that? Or a black crow that bears and raises chicks that look just like doves? If you don’t believe these things, then when we arrive in Liven I will show you, thereby expanding your horizons. Okay?”
Chief Liu is told that there are “thirty-five blind people, forty-seven deaf people, and thirty-three cripples, together with several dozen more who are missing an arm or a finger, have an extra finger, stunted growth, or some other handicap.” They carry out amazing feats: the One-Legged Monkey takes a big leap; the Paraplegic Woman embroiders a pig, dog or a cat on thick paper, rags and tree-leaves; the Little Polio Boy fits his foot in a bottle and so on. Soon enough, the money starts pouring in.
The village is called Liven and a footnote to the very first line of the novel explains that the verb “to liven” in means to experience — “enjoyment, happiness and passion, and also carries connotations of finding pleasure in discomfort, or making pleasure out of discomfort.” The village provides the name of the Festival of Livening, adding another layer of irony. Yet another footnote explains how the village acquired a population with these disabilities by taking us down an ancient Chinese legend. Designed like suggestions for further reading, these footnotes are like chapters in themselves and through them the author has widened the frame of the narrative to include diverse materials, stories within a story. For instance, the word “shadows” is explained as referring “not to people’s actual shadows, but rather to people who, after withdrawing from society, no longer have any status or certification, no proof of existence.” Withdrawing or entering society is also explained as a complicated procedure involving layers of officialdom.
Chief Liu is the minor deity of this officialdom and Grandma Mao Zhai is a remnant of the revolutionary era. Between the two of them is covered large chunks of Chinese history as well as the current political and social climate. In a brilliant footnote, we follow a young Liu as he enters the Hall of Devotion with its extraordinary silence in which he sees the works of Hegel, Kant, Feuerbach, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Ho Chi Minh, Dimitrov, Tito, Kim Il Sung and others. The narrative speaks for itself with Lianke refraining from any direct commentary. Instead, he chooses to dazzle through his inventiveness, evident even from chapter headings such as 'Chicken feathers grow into a skyscraping tree,' and 'In front of the door, a bicycle is hung from a tree.'
Early in the story, we learn from Chief Liu when Lenin was born and when he died and the fear that “given that Lenin was a world leader, Russia certainly wouldn’t give us a discount on his corpse.” But as money begins to come in from the performances, without any fanfare or dramatic build-up, the novel leads up to a great misfortune. Without giving anything away, I will simply quote the last line, “As for what the future holds, only the future would tell.” The end of the novel is followed by more footnotes, giving a final turn of the screw, almost unbearable but leaving you gasping for more as you are dazzled by the virtuosity of one of the most innovative and remarkable works to be published in recent years.
The reviewer is a critic and a fiction writer
By Yan Lianke
Translated by Carlos Rojas
Chatto and Windus, London