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Headed towards the light of the blind

The Day the Sun Died
Forfatter: Yan Lianke
Forlag: Chatto & Windus (England)

Yan Lianke writes books that cross borders and language differences and qualify to be referred to as world literature. But in his homeland his books are forbidden.

Yan Lianke is a rising star in the book heaven here in the West. But in China he is not allowed to publish – the Chinese editions of his books are banned on the mainland and only come to Taiwan. He could have done the same as the authors Ma Jian and Xiaolu Guo: pulled out of the country and published his books in translations in Europe and the United States. But then he had lost touch with the home province of Henan, and as he often repeats in interviews, Henan is the foundation of everything he writes – both personal art, the environment, landscape and not least the language he uses, which is probably well seasoned with the local Henan dialect . And yet the novel is The Day the Sun Died the most universal Yan Lianke has written so far, and in many ways also the strongest and deepest.

Basic gripping

The setting for the novel is strikingly simple: The fourteen-year-old boy Ninnian tells of the day when people started falling asleep in his hometown, Gaotian. At the same time, the sun is also disappearing, and the city and the surrounding countryside are in total darkness. Quite quickly things start to happen: Shops and homes are looted by both sleepwalkers and waking people, the elderly wandering down to the river that flows through the city and dropping out – and drowning. During the night, gangs from poor villages outside the city also begin to emerge – they come to plunder and kill the wealthy who live in their own closed, guarded neighborhoods. It is very similar to the classic war of Marxism between capitalists and proletarians, between exploiters and slave laborers, and one quickly understands why this novel – which takes place in present-day China – does not let through the censorship. Yan Lianke nourishes under forbidden emotions – the accumulated hatred and revenge is released by the sleepwalkers who roam in their own dream state, blind to one another, and live out all their trivial fantasies and desires.

It is the classic war of Marxism between capitalists and proletarians.

The boy Ninnian describes quite directly what is happening: How people – including his own parents – commute back and forth between sleeping and waking state, between blind drives and learned social codes and conventions. There is something fundamentally gripping Yan Lianke digs out in such chaotic situations, which elevates his writing and narrative to a higher level. It happens in the transition between chaos and clarity that strikes a chord that lies latent in everyone, and it also gives the novel a strong universal and universal character – universal because it is inevitable. The sleepwalkers in Gaotian are in many ways reminiscent of a Norwegian Christmas table after midnight. Long after midnight.

Democratic deficit

Yan Lianke responded that many in the West read the novel as an allegory of today's China – he was initially most concerned with the book's universal and general aspects, which cross national borders and language divides and qualify it to be referred to as world literature. But he also calls himself "a blind man who walks with a headlamp and lights up for those who see in the dark." Here he hints at the China of the majority, the China of blind materialism, the nation which, according to him, is balancing on the brink of disaster due to a chronic lack of openness and transparency. Or what in the West would be called a democratic deficit.

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In the book, the young boy Ninnian describes an ugly and extremely hard practice: To secure much-needed agricultural land, the Communist Party decides that all bodies should be cremated. This breaks with local traditions, and families begin burying their dead in secret places outside the city. Ninnian's father, Tianbao, reports this to his brother-in-law, who owns and operates the local crematorium. The brother-in-law pays Tianbao for the information and sends men to the graves. There they blow up the graves and set fire to the remains – and punish those families who break the cremation order. After this incident, people deliver all their dead to the crematorium, and the brother-in-law makes a lot of money. He also extracts oil from the corpses and plans to sell it to the highest bidder. Tianbao, on the other hand, has a bad conscience – he buys all the body oil and stores it inside a cave. It is like a kind of penance, an attempt to correct the unforgivable, the inhuman, even the unimaginable.

The sleepwalkers in Gaotian are reminiscent of a Norwegian Christmas table after midnight.

In the middle of this grotesque scenario, Yan Lianke also places himself, as a supporting character. Ninnian calls him "Uncle Yan" and describes him as "someone who went out and conquered the world, but who came home as a burnt out literate, completely devoid of ideas." Some critics interpret this as a postmodern meta-grip in which the author acts within his own novel. But really, it's more like a cry for help. It is as if Yan Lianke is trying to say that what he writes about China's incomprehensible reality helps little or nothing, everything remains as before, or it gets even worse, perhaps first and foremost for literature. He says in an interview that he has given up the Chinese book market and consideration for censorship. From now on, he writes at home in Beijing, and sends his scripts out of the country.

Kurt Sweeney
Literary critic.

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