It starts in what seems like a rural utopia: a backwater village in a backwater Chinese county, missing from official maps since imperial days, Liven is a self-governed community of the disabled, with its own culture and slang built up over centuries of isolation.
Co-operation and extraordinary physical skills honed though disability allow Liven a self-sufficient existence, and life proceeds simply but comfortably right up till the moment of a freak summer snowstorm. Crops fail, disaster ensues and officialdom duly makes a rare visit to Liven, with potentate Chief Liu bearing relief funds and an ulterior motive – he will persuade the disabled people of Liven to form a performing troupe-cum-freak show, all in the name of buying the corpse of Vladimir Lenin from Russia and installing it in a newly built mausoleum to create a permanent tourism bonanza. What could possibly go wrong?
That’s the set-up of Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses, a sprawling, tragi-comic satire of modern China almost as hard to summarise as the country itself. The readiest messages concern the absurdities and collateral damage of light-speed hyper-capitalism, but Lenin’s Kisses draws a broader historical sweep than that, and nobody from the officials down comes away entirely innocent or unscathed.
The promise of gigantic, practically unspendable piles of cash brought by tourists to Lenin’s new final resting place enraptures not just Chief Liu and his colleagues (in several hilarious scenes) but also the villagers, who pack their share of the show earnings away for a return home that never quite comes.
Liven’s matriarch, the redoubtable Grandma Mao Zhi, is opposed to it all from the start and wants Liven once again removed from the maps – but it’s a wish driven by her guilt over the disasters that visited Liven, results of her own grand plan to bring Liven into the new socialist society of the 50s and 60s.
Whimsical and horrifying by turns, layered with traditional Chinese calendar dates and digressive footnotes often as long as the chapters themselves, and structured to quietly draw attention to what can’t officially be said – there are no even-numbered chapters – Lenin’s Kisses doesn’t make many concessions to easy reading or short attention spans.
But that’s hardly the point with something like this, acclaimed in the original Mandarin, ably translated, and rewarding the effort for anyone willing to tackle a no-holds-barred satirical allegory of recent Chinese history.
LENIN’S KISSES, by Yan Lianke (Text, $26).
Sam Finnemore is an Auckland reviewer