Lenin's Kisses by Yan Lianke

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Lenin's Kisses by Yan Lianke

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Fascinating literary fiction translation of a Chinese award winning book that tells of the role of a rural village of disabled residents and their role in funding an ambitious plan to move Lenin's body to China. Full of allegory and symbolism, this is a rare example of modern Chinese literary fiction in translation.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 9780701188078

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Yan Lianke's 2004 novel, Lenin's Kisses, newly and beautifully translated by Carlos Rojas, is a rare and fascinating example, not just of Chinese fiction from a writer living and working in China, but also a book that has won literary awards (the prestigious Chinese Lao She Literary Award), now available in English. In many respects, the fact that this book won such a literary prize is somewhat surprising - not I hasten to add because of any lack of quality - but because Lianke, who has previously sailed too close to the political wind for Chinese censors, here presents a not altogether flattering view of Chinese politics. It's a book that is literary with a capital L, and while the core of the plot is relatively simple, what makes this book so interesting is the structure and way the story is told.

The basic plot is that somewhere in rural China there is a small village, Liven, populated almost wholly by the disabled but whose relationship with the Chinese system is mixed and for much of the book, led by the charismatic matriarch of the village, Granny Mao Zhi, the village seeks to remove itself from the socialist ideals, in what is termed 'withdrawing from society'. An ambitious political big wig, Chief Liu meanwhile has an audacious plan to build a giant mausoleum in the region which he intends to fill with the remains of Lenin which he wants to purchase from the Russians. His idea is that the tourism income from this will be so vast that everyone in the region will struggle to spend their money. Using the villagers of Liven as a circus troop of special skills, he plans to mount a travelling show to raise the cash required to make the Russians an offer they cannot refuse. The result is a complex and interesting tale of the challenges of the Chinese political and economic system faces in the modern world with the lure of cash fighting with the socialist ideals.

In terms of structure, the book is, as you might expect from Chinese fiction, strong on images, here that of agriculture and the life cycle of a tree. Chapters are all odd numbers, unlucky numbers in Chinese culture. The other notable thing is the extensive use of footnotes (called 'further reading'), which really shouldn't be read as footnotes where they are noted in the text but rather at the end of the main chapters, which both explain some aspects of dialogue but more interestingly Lianke uses to give back story to the village and its characters.

Often when the translator introduces a novel with their notes, this is dangerous territory. They often reveal unwelcome plot spoilers, making it better to read at the end of the book rather than at the beginning. Not so here. Rojas presents a rich commentary and background to the book, without any plot spoilers, that genuinely adds to the reader's experience.

He emphasises the importance of the 'out of joint' nature of the narrative, with summer snows and oft noted variations in seasonal expectations as well as the jumping around between present and past. He also comments on Lianke's brushes with censorship and it's a fair bet that the disabled of Liven are an allegory for the plight of a writer living in a censored world. Yes, they can still achieve often remarkable things, and things that are different from what they might do without that censorship, but in the end the able bodied, 'wholers' in charge generally come out on top.

Our grateful thanks to the kind people at Chatto & Windus for sending us this book.

If you enjoyed this then you might also enjoy another glimpse of socialism in fiction with The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson while if the whole issue of censorship of authors interests you then Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie is well worth reading.

Buy Lenin's Kisses by Yan Lianke at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lenin's Kisses by Yan Lianke at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Lenin's Kisses by Yan Lianke at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lenin's Kisses by Yan Lianke at Amazon.com.

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