The Routledge Companion to Yan Lianke

Edited by Riccardo Moratto and Howard Yuen Fung Choy

Reviewed by Martina Codeluppi

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2022)

Riccardo Moratto and Howard Yuen Fung Choy, eds., The Routledge Companion to Yan Lianke London and New York: Routledge, 2022, ISBN: 9780367700980 (cloth).

Putting together a comprehensive volume about one of the most interesting, prolific, and internationally recognized voices in contemporary Chinese literature is not an easy task. This work, edited by Riccardo Moratto and Howard Yuen Fung Choy, makes the most of its 519 pages to retrace Yan Lianke’s 阎连科 literary production from its origins to the present day, providing a generous number of essays on the author’s poetics in theory and in practice, as well as on the challenges of its translation and reception.

The ambition of the project is self-evident, and it takes no more than one glance at the table of contents to realize it: the volume comprises 32 chapters divided into four parts, each of them addressing two specific aspects of Yan Lianke’s literary production. The table of contents is followed by a list of illustrations and then that of the contributors, which shows a considerable degree of diversity in terms of academic position and nationality, thereby ensuring a multifaceted perspective. The volume has multiple levels of introduction. The foreword by Carlos Rojas provides a retrospective view on Yan Lianke’s main works, focusing on the key elements that characterize his literary production. In particular, Rojas employs the metaphor of darkness to bring forward the relationship between Yan’s works and censorship, leading the way for the following essays, just like the flashlight Yan himself talked about on receiving the Franz Kafka Prize in 2014 (xxii). Subsequently, Yan Lianke’s preface—translated by Riccardo Moratto—introduces the collection of essays by quoting from both Western classics, such as The Iliad, The Metamorphosis, The Divine Comedy and The Bible, and Chinese ones to show that literature emerged out of human experience. Yan then goes on to analyze how the relationship among writers, critics, and readers has changed across the centuries, and raises the question of where the truth and the “story field” of twenty-first century literature are to be found (xxxv). In doing so, he shows an aspiration to move beyond realism and seek the truth by transcending real-life experiences. Following Yan’s essay, the editorial preface by Riccardo Moratto and Howard Yuen Fung Choy provides some background information concerning the birth of the project and a description of it parts. Finally, two sections of acknowledgments—one by Yan and one by the editors—brings the introductory section to a close. Because of the richness of the volume and the variety of its contributions, I address each of its parts separately and provide a brief overview of each chapter.

Part I is titled “Mythorealism and Censorship” and contains six chapters that investigate the source of Yan’s literary creation and address the foundations of his works. It introduces the pivotal concept of mythorealism in detail, by exploring its interconnections with trauma and utopia, on the one hand, and by bringing forward the issue of its translation into English, on the other. The first chapter is a revised version of a previously published article by Weijie Song that sets out from the key concept of mythorealism to explore Yan’s interpretation of utopia, which can be political or literary, but can also take the form of an ecotopia. In particular, the author focuses on Lenin’s Kisses (受活) and Garden No. 711 (711号园) to show how mythorealism can be applied to urban as well as botanical contexts. The second chapter, by Xiaolu Ma, focuses on the history of realism and on Yan’s relationship with socialist realism. She challenges the English translation of shenshizhuyi (神实主义) as “mythorealism” and deconstructs the concept, first by explaining the implications of shi (实) and then by addressing shen (神). In doing so, Ma highlights Yan’s connections with Russian realism. The three following chapters all deal with the representation of trauma. Ashley Liu focuses on the memoir Three Brothers (我与父辈) and the novel The Dream of Ding Village (丁庄梦) to elucidate how Yan’s use of mythorealism portrays traumatic events that have affected modern China, drawing a connection to Camus’ Sisyphus. Raffael Weger continues this exploration of the issue of trauma by shedding new light on the similarities between Yan’s mythorealism and magic realism, stressing the uniqueness of Yan’s approach. He concentrates on The Four Books (四书) and The Explosion Chronicles (炸裂志) and, building on Eugene Arva’s concept of “traumatic imagination,” points out that mythorealism and magic realism are similar in some ways yet different in others where conceiving the truth is concerned—whereas magic realism is supposed to be complementary to the official narrative, mythorealism’s purpose is to replace it, by trying to provide a more authentic narrative of the truth. A very rich chapter by Marco Fumian then returns to the issue of the translation of mythorealism raised by Xiaolu Ma. Delving deep into the concept, Fumian proposes the term “pararealism” to define something that is at one and the same time close to reality and a deviation from it. Furthermore, he analyzes a number of Yan’s short stories—which Fumian has translated into Italian himself—to explore Yan’s pararealism as a method to represent contemporary Chinese society. Finally, Jessica Yeung addresses the topic of the censorship of literature and of Yan Lianke’s works in particular. Yeung addresses Yan’s status vis-à-vis Chinese censorship, and explores how this affects his literary production and the way it is marketed. Her analysis spans the “soft propaganda” of his early works (72) and the beginning of his more controversial fiction to the recent problems he has encountered for supporting Fang Fang’s 方方 diary about the lockdown in Wuhan in 2020. Yeung’s essay dwells on the influence of censorship and control on Yan’s literary works and private life, showing that it is part and parcel of his production as well as of his uniqueness as a writer. Ultimately, this chapter offers an inspiring perspective for investigating literature “beyond the text.”

Part II, titled “Absurdity and Spirituality,” consists of eight chapters and is somewhat more fragmented than the previous one. It touches on Yan’s early works as well as his most recent and encompasses a variety of essays that address their literary structure and provide an interpretation of the symbols they contain. In brief, this section proceeds from the concept of mythorealism to delve deeper into Yan’s texts and extrapolate the origins of his use of the absurd to explore the sensible. Haiyan Xie begins her investigation with Yan’s military literature, which is rather understudied. She focuses on Yan’s use of the absurd to portray the reality of contemporary China, presenting it not only as a formal experiment but also as a way to mitigate political criticism, by avoiding an explicit clash with mainstream ideology. The following chapter, by Selusi Ambrogio, develops a comparison with Italo Calvino’s concept of the absurd, focusing on the depiction of urban space in Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Yan’s The Explosion Chronicles. He compares these two anti-epics through the lens of epos (epic), ethos (shared social norms and institutions), and topos (territory). Another comparative study, by Melinda Pirazzoli, then analyzes Yan Lianke’s novel The Four Books and Kafka’s The Trial to show their different interpretations of an “inverse theology.” Pirazzoli addresses the ethical implications of historiography, considering The Four Books as a metanarrative on an historical event as well as a reflection on the moral implications of writing. Nicoletta Pesaro’s chapter traces the origins of Yan’s mythorealism back to his early works, in relation to his innovative approach to native soil fiction (乡土小说). She analyzes the author’s modernist devices by focusing on the novella Gold Cave (黄金洞); in particular, she explores his first, experimental use of the grotesque to fully represent reality in both its visible and invisible aspects. Alessandra Pezza’s essay returns to the issue of (self-)censorship and mythorealism, focusing on the influence of politics in Yan’s writings. More specifically, she explores his recent works and investigates the mechanisms of power embodied in the conflictual status of the intellectual and his role in contemporary society. Shelley W. Chan addresses the theme of illness and its literary interpretation through the lens of Yan’s mythorealism. She analyzes The Dream of Ding Village and its biopolitical reflections by exploring its thanatopolitical features. The last two chapters focus on Yan’s most recent works. Andrea Riemenschnitter’s essay deals with the novel Heart Sutra (心经) and its unique description of the “encounter between the inner and the outer spheres of religious faith” (184). Her close reading offers an enlightening interpretation of this recent work, from its structure as a Bildungsroman in a religious shell to its subversive implications as Yan’s umpteenth call to preserve historical memory. The last chapter, by Di-kai Chao and Riccardo Moratto, is a revised version of an essay previously published in Chinese that addresses Yan’s latest work, namely Central Plains (中原), a novel that employs the metaphor of the will to kill one’s family to expose the effects of economic disparities and unequal regional development on China. Chao and Moratto offer an interesting reading of Yan’s modern utopia based on the classic “The Peach Blossom Spring” (桃花源記), along with an exploration of Yan Lianke’s’s interpretation of the Sinophone context and its multilingualism.

Part III of the volume is titled “History and Gender” and consists of another eight chapters. As the title suggests, some chapters adopt a historical perspective or focus on the issue of gender; however, this section is also rather composite and offers many different approaches to Yan’s works, including geocriticism, ecocriticism, and narratology. The opening chapter by Sebastian Veg focuses on the Mao era and explores the representation of the Great Leap Forward in The Four Books. Veg analyzes Yan’s depiction of Maoism, but also concentrates on the novel’s reception by mainland China’s critics as proof of the need to overcome the dichotomy between banned and non-banned books in order to understand a literary work’s power to trigger historical debate in the public sphere and to challenge the official narrative on the Mao era. Zihan Wang continues the discussion on history by comparing the depiction of disability in Lenin’s Kisses with other similar stories from socialist narratives. Wang draws attention to Yan’s distance from the dominant paradigm by foregrounding his attempt to challenge official historiography. Kwan Yin Lee’s chapter provides one last reflection on the narration of history by comparing Xi Xi’s “The Story of Fertile Town” (肥土镇的故事) and Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles, with special attention to both works’ deployment of figurative language. In particular, he focuses on the use of catachresis to describe the “miraculous” economic development of Hong Kong and Mainland China and to engage dynamically with the official historical narrative. The chapters by Sabrina Ardizzoni and Yijiao Guo both address Yan’s nonfiction work Tamen (她们), shifting the focus to the author’s representation of gender. Ardizzoni proposes to translate Tamen with the neologism “shes,” and, drawing from gender studies and Spivak’s concept of the “subaltern,” explores the power mechanisms represented in this work. In particular, she analyzes the relationship between gender and narrative structure, as well as the description of women and of their roles in a specific socialist and postsocialist rural society. Guo continues the discussion on Tamen and investigates Yan’s view on gender and femininity by analyzing women’s status as an “excrescence” and providing an inspiring interpretation of female history as a narrative rhizome. The following chapter by Chen Wang resumes the discourse on the history of the Mao era. By concentrating on the spatial dimension in Yan’s work, Wang carries out a comprehensive geocritical reading of those stories by Yan set in the Balou Mountains. She explores the connection between man and space in The Years, Months, Days (年月日), and Yan’s description of a utopian world in The Explosion Chronicles. Minh Thương Nguyễn Thi and Riccardo Moratto further discuss space, shifting from geocriticism to ecocriticism in a revised version of an essay previously published in Vietnamese. They focus on ecological ethics, ecological philosophy, and ecological aesthetics in Yan’s works, analyzing The Dream of Ding Village, Streams of Time (日光流年), and The Four Books, but also non-fiction works like House No. 711. The final chapter, by Ronald Torrance, explores from a narratological perspective Yan’s use of paratexts to expand literary space and subtly resist censorship. Furthermore, Torrance points out how this facet of Yan’s works has impacted their reception in the West.

Part IV marks a shift of focus, since it contains ten chapters that deal with the “Translation and Reception” of Yan Lianke’s works in Asia and the West. This is quite a voluminous section, featuring contributions by both critics and translators. In the first chapter, Chunli Shen carries out a comparative study on the reception of Yan’s works in China and the West from the perspective of literary criticism: the author explores the ideological background of Yan’s literary critics by situating them in their specific sociopolitical contexts. She looks at sources spanning the years from 1992 to 2020 and shows how Western and Chinese literary critics choose to focus on completely different aspects of Yan’s work, leading to a sharp divergence in their assessments and conclusions. The second chapter, by Taciana Fisac, revolves around the potential of The Four Books to be a “dangerous novel” and addresses how this has been expressed in various translations of the book. She compares the English, Spanish, Italian, German, and French translations and shows how they differ in terms of translation strategies when it comes to problems such as the use of symbolism, particular lexical devices, and metaphors. Maialen Marin-Lacarta brings her perspective as a literary translator to bear on her translation of Yan’s literature into Basque. In particular, she addresses the challenges of translating Yan’s poetic language in the novella Heavenly Songs of Balou (耙耧天歌). The following chapter, by Lu Gan, offers a retrospective on the translation of Yan’s works in France. Her study centers on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the French translations and on the evolution of their reception from the early 2000s to the end of 2020. In the following chapter, Zuzana Li analyzes her own translation of The Four Books into Czech. Baorong Wang’s essay revolves around the English translation of the culturally specific items in Yan’s Lenin’s Kisses, providing a quantitative analysis of the strategies employed by Carlos Rojas. The last four chapters are dedicated to Yan’s translations and reception in Asia, starting from a revised version of an essay by Lu Dongli and Riccardo Moratto previously published in Chinese. Their chapter focuses on Japan, exploring local publishing strategies, the media’s influence, and the role of Japanese translators in defining Yan’s literary status. The following essay, by Van Hieu Do and Riccardo Moratto, also previously published in Chinese, focuses on the translation and reception of Yan Lianke in Vietnam. Finally, the last two chapters address the reception of Yan’s works in Sinophone speaking contexts, namely Taiwan and Hong Kong. The first one by Riccardo Moratto and Di-kao Chao, again a revised version of an essay published in Chinese, investigates the reception of Yan Lianke’s writings both in Taiwanese academia and in the publishing industry. The last chapter of the book, by Carole Hang-fung Hoyan and Yijiao Guo, brings the discussion to a close by exploring the reception of Yan Lianke’s works in Hong Kong. They analyze how Yan’s works were reviewed and interpreted in the media, as well as in different publications and academic contexts. The volume then ends with a complete Yan Lianke bibliography, including—but not limited to—his fiction, non-fiction, lectures, and interviews, followed by a concise index.

As indicated at the beginning of this review, The Routledge Companion to Yan Lianke is an ambitious project and constitutes a much-needed collection of studies on one of the most important Chinese writers of our time. Although a few typos and inconsistencies can be found here and there, the book has for the most part been carefully edited, especially considering its size and the diversity of its chapters. I find its layout slightly unbalanced in terms of the distribution of the chapters and the range of contributors, especially in Part IV, which I believe could actually be expanded into a book in its own right. Nonetheless, thanks to the variety of the perspectives encompassed by its essays, the volume offers an unprecedentedly comprehensive view of Yan Lianke’s fiction and is indeed a valuable contribution to the fields of literature, translation, and reception studies.

Martina Codeluppi
Università degli Studi dell’Insubria