Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Hilarious kinky


My bro Roger asked me a long time ago to indicate, when blogging about a book, where I'd discovered the book and/or author. Unfortunately, this is something I've generally forgotten to do, maybe in part because it's not usually an interesting story: the majority of my reads are based on others' suggestions.

But Yan Lianke's Serve the People! is an excitingly successful product of what I will henceforth term Library Roulette: i.e., I was browsing in the gorgeous Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library and saw this. I noted I hadn't heard of either book or author and that I liked the cover. I didn't do a page 40 test. I didn't do a page 1 test either. I didn't read the back cover. The front of the copy I read didn't loudly proclaim that Serve the People! is "BANNED IN CHINA". I simply picked it up and checked it out and then I finally read it.

Yuri warned me that it's a dangerous world and I shouldn't engage with just any book, but my promiscuous experimentation has paid off this time. (NOTE: Yuri and I both realize that my gun metaphor and his skank metaphor are not compatible, but we stick by their unlikely marriage here.) Serve the People! is as funny as its effusive and sufficiently bribed back cover copy says it is. Set in the late '60s in Mao's China, this novel tells the story of Wu Dawang, a soldier in the People's Army, and his love affair with the Division Commander's wife, Liu Lian.

They imagine they're the most counterrevolutionary people in the world by 1) engaging in frequent and kinky adulterous sex together, 2) desecrating in various ways and ultimately smashing all the Mao paraphernalia in Liu's house (punishable by death!), and 3) repeating 1) here because 2) turns them on so much. All told, Liu and Wu have a really pretty excellent two months together before Liu's husband is due to return from the army business elsewhere that's allowed them to be alone so much.

In fact, their love, which they take very seriously, is laughable in part because of how seriously they take it but more because they're being manipulated like puppets by the Division Commander from afar. (And maybe Liu; it wasn't clear to me if she was complicit at all, and if so, how much.)

Serve the People! is a good, funny story with a drop of mean. Its writing and translating were also good. As well, I liked the way the narrator kept interjecting to confidentially confer with me about the little drama we were watching our erstwhile and green lovers enact:
...matters had now swung from the deadly serious to the unimaginably ridiculous - to a level of absurdity beyond Wu Dawang's own comprehension, but still artistically consistent with the fantastical parameters of our story. (p. 87)
The book constantly vacillates between the "deadly serious" and the "unimaginably ridiculous", so much so that ultimately they can't be considered singly. Yan's narrative world is both pathetic and beautiful, silly and profound - perhaps this is the the ultimate in realism, even when Yan is calling attention to the constructedness of his narrative.

In case I haven't said so: I really enjoyed this book. Thus fortified, I now dive back into Henry James - 106 pages and 10 days to go.

3 comments:

Tony said...

I might give this a try as I'm keen to read some more Chinese books (and it's a waste of time asking my Chinese friends for recommendations when all the good stuff is banned over there).

By the way, I'm sure I saw a review (or a slating) of Andrew O'Hagan's 'Our Fathers' (which I'm currently reading) somewhere on this site; was I imagining things? I can't find it anywhere now!

Yuri... said...

And here I thought that this would be the "I've finished Henry James" post! Oh well, all in good itme - and this sounds like it was an entirely worthy diversion.

Does this mean that you are officially reading just one book at the moment?I believe you said that if you finished one more, you would be down to one.

Colleen said...

Tony: Have you read what of Lilian Lee's stuff is available in English? I think she's very good and have no idea whether or not she's been banned. Also, for ancient Chinese stuff, I'm a big fan of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling.

Yuri: The Henry James post is coming, don't you worry BECAUSE I FINISHED IT LAST NIGHT!!! I'm still on 2 books though because I got distracted before reading the last James story and began a Flann O'Brien book. But very soon I'll be down to reading one book - it'll be glorious!