The Four Books

Like many of Lianke’s works, The Four Books is unavailable in his native China; unsurprising, given its subject is the murderous stupidity of the 1958-61 ‘Great Leap Forward’ — its massive, avoidable death toll still obfuscated by rulers.

The Four Books

Yan Lianke

Chatto & Windus, €16.99; ebook. €11.99

Review: Alex Sarll

A realist telling would risk being so harrowing as to numb the senses, so instead this fractured fable pieces together four different accounts of one ‘re-education’ penal camp.

Directed by the monstrous, passive-aggressive, yet strangely innocent Child (the characters all have titles rather than names), the ‘criminal’ inmates accused of counter- revolutionary actions and beliefs strive madly to fulfil ever-changing instructions from the distant higher-ups, resorting to subterfuge and self-destruction in the effort to meet impossible production quotas.

Famine, disaster, and cannibalism inevitably follow, and the book becomes a progressively harder read, albeit one worth struggling through for its reminders of the worst (and occasionally, best) of which humanity is capable.

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