The heart of a commune corrupted by capitalism

Lenin’s Kisses
Yan Lianke (translated by Carlos Rojas)
Vintage, £8.99;Kindle, £6.83

Liven is a remote village in northern China, inhabited entirely by the disabled. Yet it is an idyllic place, the perfect commune, with each part working in perfect synch in order to benefit the greater good. And watching over this small corner of the world is the matriarchal Grandma Mao Zhi, a wise and benevolent elder whose only wish is to preserve harmony.

Into this scene arrives Liu Yingque, the local county politico. Having been greeted in the village with a special talent contest, his capitalist heart begins to pound. Glimpsing the opportunity to bring great wealth to the region — and to himself — he concocts a plan so fantastic that it may just border on the ingenious: Based on the huge tourist trap that Chairman Mao’s tomb in Beijing has become, he proposes to take advantage of Russia’s current financial travails by making a big cash offer for the embalmed remains of Vladimir Lenin, the father of Communism. A mausoleum is to be built in the mountains as a new Mecca, and the entire audacious enterprise will be funded by sending the inhabitants of Liven on the road under the guise of a spectacular special skills circus troupe, a stunning freak show.

Feeling that the whole thing demeans her fellow villagers, Mao Zhi is unhappy, but finally agrees to the plan, on the condition that Liven will be allowed to return to bucolic obscurity once the requisite money has been raised. The troupe set out and quickly meet with great success, but as the money floods in hearts become inevitably corrupted, with devastating consequences for all concerned.

Yan Lianke is one of Chinese literature’s most esteemed voices, a writer of considerable controversy whose novels are frequently banned or censored at home but who has been gaining steady recognition on the international stage. In recent years, he has made the shortlists of both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Asian Literary Prize for his deeply satirical take on the Aids crisis, Dream of Ding Village, and was a finalist for the International Booker Prize, a biennial honour that recognises career achievement and, in award terms, considered by many the major rival to the Nobel Prize for Literature.

On the surface, Lenin’s Kisses is a muscular and somewhat light-hearted read, masking its heavyweight nature beneath flurries of magic realism. But this is a serious and challenging novel, stylistically inventive and strikingly translated by Carlos Rojas, a rich allegorical consideration of China through the 20th century, fusing histories ancient and recent, from the early dynasties through the Cultural Revolution, and reflecting on the shifting face of modern Communism against the insinuation of Capitalist ideals.

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