Yan Lianke. The Four Books

ethnic china

Yan Lianke. The Four Books

The Four Books refers to the famous Four Books of Confucius, the basis of Chinese thought for two millennia. And like those of Confucius, these by Yan Lianke could become a new model for understanding the glories and miseries of human beings.

The Four Books describes the experiences of a group of political prisoners sent to a re-education camp during the time of the Great Leap Forward. Most of them were great experts in their respective fields, but they were not considered to have shown sufficient fidelity to the regime: they are criminals, the scholar, the Theologian, the Musician, and the Author, who keeps a diary of the faults of each comrade that he promptly denounces to his superiors. All of them led by the Child, a young man really hooked on the diplomas and flowers with which his superiors reward his achievements.

This is one of the author’s great novels, and it is also one of the great novels of contemporary China. I have already criticized elsewhere the almost abusive use that has been made by some authors of the traumatic experiences of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but this work I think has a very important contribution to the revision of recent history. And that is the extension of responsibility to all participants. It is clear that each one has a responsibility in the failure according to the political responsibility they had at the time, but it is also clear that each one is guilty of continuing with a farce, which then ends up turning tragic. That is to say when each of the people who appear in the novel commit themselves to achieve impossible agricultural objectives, simply because of the enthusiasm of their bosses or because they do not dare to contradict them, and when this later has catastrophic consequences when they discover that this grain does not exist, it turns all those who were present into authors and victims of this problem. But at the same time it does not present it as a moral judgment on these activities, but by revealing the personalities of each of the protagonists shows us the fate as an inevitable consequence. And that for me gives it a great value, because situations similar to those experienced during the novel, are continually presented before our eyes, and the inability to act correctly before them, because of laziness or because it is easier for us to get carried away by a generalized enthusiasm, can have consequences as tragic as those we discover in the novel.

Without going any further, we are currently facing a series of possible disasters, of which scientists seem to warn us, it must be said, with a message that sometimes also arrives quite distorted, but it seems that the social gear in which we live makes it impossible for us to think about facing these challenges, these threats that may have in the future a development as dramatic as the one we see in this novel. That is why I believe that one of the author’s successes is that he does not blame anyone but generalizes the blame, and at the same time shows it as the result of two types of situations, one political and the other human.

It is clear that the author forces himself to dilute and make everyone participate in these situations when in the last of the four books that give the title to the work he talks about nothing more and nothing less than the myth of Sisyphus, and how people get used to any task, no matter how painful it may seem and how absurd it may seem at first sight. In doing so, he uproot the drama of its spatial and temporal contextualization, and without taking the responsibility away from anyone, because it does not take it away, it makes it extensible to other similar situations in other historical and temporal coordinates.

The very treatment of the main protagonists, the Author, the Intellectual, the Religious, the Music, the Child, who are shown with tremendous humanity, in the sense that each one is capable of doing whatever it takes to survive. And each one seems to be able to understand that this is so, and we see that the greatest barbarities happen without apparently leaving a big impact on any of them.

I end this review with one of the most beautiful paragraphs of the final part of the book:

«By embracing Sisyphus, humanity is given a key and spirit with which to fracture existing reality and create a new one. What no one realizes, however, is that this view reflects our misunderstanding of Sisyphus’s condition. Over time, Sisyphus gradually grew accustomed to what we view aS punishment, which he initially also regarded with frustration and distress but eventually managed to accept. This process of familiarization became his weapon, and permitted him to resist the forward movement of time. In the morning he would begin pushing the boulder toward the top of the mountain, and in the evening he would watch as it rolled back down the other side. The next morning he would begin the process all over again. Sisyphus had already come to regard this eternal recurrence as a requirement and a responsibility, and if he were to escape the prison house created by this perpetual repetition, Sisyphus would have felt that his life had lost all meaning.»

Image by wei zhu from Pixabay

Yan Lianke. The Four Books. Grove Press. 2016.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Yan Lianke. The Four Books," in Ethnic China, 28 junio 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/yan-lianke-the-four-books/.

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