Few of us know what to make of China. We see polite and elegant, evidently well-educated young men and women on TV, products of the remarkable transformation of the country since the dark and brutal days of Chairman Mao. And yet, as the novelist Yan Lianke puts it, beneath “the bright ray of light illuminating the global East… there is a dark shadow”. The Party remains in control and the Party cannot free itself from the past. It speaks of “the Chinese dream… The great renewal of the Chinese nation,” but in this novel dreams suggest that the present is still haunted by nightmares.
Lianke is one of the most famous of today’s Chinese novelists. He wins international prizes – one being, appropriately, the Franz Kafka in 2014 – and he has previously been shortlisted for the international Man Booker. He lives in Beijing, and has received a state salary as a writer. He isn’t persecuted, and has a passport (which allows him to be in Edinburgh this month, where he will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.)
At the same time, this novel, like its two immediate predecessors, was published in Taiwan and, though it won a prestigious Hong Kong Prize it has never been published in mainland China. It is as if Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had never been expelled from the Soviet Writers Union, and had been allowed to attend literary festivals in the West and send his manuscripts to be published there, even while the books themselves were banned in the USSR.
The Day The Sun Died is a fantasy, but unlike many fantasy novels it shadows reality. Lianke has spoken of his work seeking to deal with “the invisible reality… the reality that is covered up by reality”. He writes about “amnesia with Chinese characteristics... a state-administered loss of memory that the State sees as essential to its survival”. So, history might either be suppressed or distorted.
Here we have a village in which the Sun seems to have died. It’s a June evening and the narrator, a 14-year-old boy, Li Niannian – who knows Yan Lianke and his books, though the villagers and townspeople call him an idiot – notices that something strange is happening. Instead of going to bed, people are leaving their homes and walking in the streets or heading for the fields. But they are not awake. They are “dreamwalking”, and when people dreamwalk anything may happen, often alarmingly.
There is discontent. There has been discontent for a long time, ever since the government decreed that people should no longer be buried, but cremated. If anyone breaks the law, a government squad will excavate the body. Meanwhile, anyone reporting an illegal burial will be rewarded. Li’s family have profited: his uncle owns the crematorium, his parents make funerary wreaths, shrouds and papercuts, while his father has been an informer, also taking possession of the barrels of “corpse-oil” secreted by burning bodies.
Now dreamwalking releases inhibitions. Some seek death, others revenge for injuries inflicted on them. Some confess their guilt and look for atonement, Li’s father among them; he demands to be beaten. Others engage in theft and looting. Order breaks down completely, and the question is, first, whether it can be restored, and if so, how? Li’s father tells the novelist, whom he addresses as “Brother Lianke” that he can use the night’s events as the basis for a novel. More than 500 deaths are reported in this night of dreamwalking – some accidents, some suicides, some homicides. And yet “after this devastation, few households appeared to be particularly distraught, and few families were weeping”.
It’s a remarkable novel – open, like most good novels, to a variety of interpretations. The events described are incredible; the atmosphere all too believable. The dreamworld challenges the Party’s “Chinese Dream”. The individual and collective past can neither be buried nor cremated. It continues to haunt the present, even if it must never be spoken of. Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters comes to mind, all the more so because the Spanish word “sueno” may also be translated as “dream”. ■
The Day The Sun Died, by Yan Lianke (trans. Carlos Rojas) Chatto & Windus, 342pp, £12.99. Yan Lianke is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 27 August