After completing the African leg of our Man Booker International Prize journey, it’s time to head off to Asia this week for a history lesson of a rather unusual kind. Today’s book is a tongue-in-cheek guide to the growth of one of China’s biggest cities (even if you’ve never heard of it), showing how a small hamlet has become a shining example of the recent rapid Chinese economic growth. But that’s not all that it’s about – here’s a story of families, lust and, of course, money (lots and lots of money…).
The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke
– Chatto & Windus, translated by Carlos Rojas
What’s it all about?
Mr. Yan, a notable son of the great city of Explosion, is commissioned to complete a long-standing project of his hometown, a history of the provincial-level Megalopolis. He decides to change the approach somewhat, focusing on an individual in his attempt to make sense of the story, but on completion, the book doesn’t meet everyone’s approval:
16) 2013, The Explosion Chronicles was released in Chinese simultaneously by publishers in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, but virtually all of the cadres, administrators, intellectuals and common people of Explosion refused to recognize this fantastic and absurd text, which incited an unprecedented and antihistorical movement. As a result, Yan Lianke was prohibited from ever returning to Explosion, where he had grown up.
p.5 (Text Publishing, 2016)
Nevertheless, the (fictional) book has been published, and it turns out to contain quite a story.
The focus of the tale is on the Kong family, in particular old Kong Dongde’s second son, Kong Mingliang. A young man endowed with natural cunning, he’s able to strike it rich and gain enough influence to be made the village chief – but that’s just the beginning. From village to town, from town to county, from county to city, there seems to be no end to the new mayor’s ambitions or abilities, but there is someone who might be able to stop him in his tracks. You see, while Kong Mingliang might be the most powerful man in the region, Zhu Ying, the daughter of the old village chief, is also a force to be reckoned with, and no matter how hard Kong tries to shake her off, a woman’s touch can be very influential indeed…
The Explosion Chronicles is an expansive family saga spanning decades, but it’s also a satirical look at the process and results of China’s headlong dash for progress and, above all, wealth. Explosion is anytown China, a canvas upon which Yan can critique the direction the country has taken, while also taking potshots at the attitudes shown by those wanting to get rich quick (who are never satisfied with what they’ve got). Cleverly, there’s never any criticism of the overall intention of improving living standards, or any hint of wrongdoing by central officials; instead, the writer’s focus is on the way officials in the provinces, far from the halls of power, go about getting things done.
Like his previous work in English, The Four Books (which was shortlisted for last year’s prize), The Explosion Chronicles begins with a sparsely populated area in the sticks, but this rapidly changes, and the focus is much more on economics, or wealth-building, than politics here. Mingliang, the most ambitious and hard-working of Kong Dongde’s four sons, uses his new-found wealth (obtained by stealing goods from the slow-moving goods trains trundling through the mountains…) to seize power in the village, and once he reaches this position, he’s determined to keep pushing. He’s the right man for the right time, and with the central government keen to promote business expansion where it occurs, he’s able to make connections and keep developing his hometown (with the grateful locals who have benefited from the changes happy to have him at the helm).
There is, however, one possible obstacle in his path, and that is Zhu Ying, the daughter of the previous village chief (who dies in rather unlikely and disgusting circumstances). The two scions of the major local families are destined to have their fates intertwined, and whenever Kong believes he’s finally broken free of Zhu’s influence, her schemes come to fruition, and he’s forced to go back to her to beg for help in raising Explosion to the next level of its unstoppable growth. Her wealth comes from rather different sources to that of the Mayor, and while he has plenty of connections, she too has her methods of reaching the ears of the powerful – and very effective they are too.
Apart from the story itself, the most noticeable feature of The Explosion Chronicles is its use of a kind of Magical Realism. It’s not uncommon for strange events to happen in Explosion, with the weather and the local flora influenced by the moods of the main characters:
The tree leaves all fell to the ground and the grass dried up. Then the villagers heard Mingyao shouting in the street, saying, “Democracy is good. You should vote for whomever you wish.” At that point, it began half-raining and half-snowing in Zhang Peak, and everything quickly froze over.” (p.75)
As the pace of progress accelerates, matters only become stranger, and while Mingliang can make it rain just by frowning, when he needs to make good on his promise to build an airport and a hundred-kilometre subway line in just a week, it’s his younger brother Mingyao, a retired soldier, who gets the job done – under rather unusual circumstances…
It’s all good fun, and can be entertaining at times, yet I wouldn’t say that The Explosion Chronicles really succeeds in what it sets out to do. Yes, it’s meant to be slightly unrealistic, but it doesn’t read very well, and there are parts where it’s just a list of achievements and developments scattered between stories about boorish, unlikeable people. Not everyone will enjoy the obsession with prostitutes and excessive conspicuous consumption, and if you’re looking for sympathetic characters, they’re rather thin on the ground. There’s also a marked tendency towards the crass, with the fairly one-dimensional characters rarely having any kind of filter between brain and mouth:
When he remembered the feeling she had given him, he found himself bursting with desire. Moreover, when he remembered that he already had a million yuan, he wanted nothing more than to piss all over someone’s face so that he could then use his hundred-yuan bills to wipe it clean. (pp.246/7)
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of this around, and the sensitive reader would be well advised to exercise caution when deciding whether or not to read this book.
Despite this, The Explosion Chronicles is an interesting read, and in the last third, especially, when we accompany some of the more introspective characters a little more, Yan provides a more nuanced side to the tale. Of course, what makes it worth reading is the realisation that as bizarre as the story seems, in many ways it’s not far removed from the truth. Not convinced? Well, have a look at this article, one I stumbled across while preparing to get started on my review. Sometimes, you really can’t make this stuff up…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Not even close. This book lost me very early on, and the reading process was more of a chore than a pleasure. I understand that there’s a satirical side to The Explosion Chronicles, but the book merely comes across as cartoonish and laboured, with even the magical realism elements falling flat for the most part. This is dead last on my list so far, and with a few similar views already expressed by my shadowy colleagues, I don’t think this will be getting anywhere near our shortlist.
Will it make the shortlist?
I certainly hope not. There might be one judge among the five that will champion this for personal reasons, but I can’t see it making the next stage. If it does, it just proves that the old IFFP preference for themes over writing didn’t entirely disappear when Boyd Tonkin left the building…
As interesting as the last week or so has been, we must now turn back towards Europe, although our first stop takes us right to the continent’s edge. From the very centre of a magnificent empire, we’ll then travel north to one of its far-flung provinces, where a troublesome nobleman needs to be subdued. In times like these, caution is advised, but it’s not always that easy. It seems that the only one not to lose his head is the one who has to carry them…