Review published on May 18, 2016.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016, The Four Books is a stunning, harrowing tale of China’s Great Leap Forward as seen through the eyes of various characters in a re-education camp. The novel is made up of “excerpts” from other books, supposedly written for different audiences, including Criminal Records which the Author (the residents of the camp are referred to in the books by their former jobs) is instructed to write for the higher ups to details the “crimes” of his fellow “criminals” (otherwise known as intellectuals), although he secretly writes Old Course in parallel. Heaven’s Child and A New Myth of Sisyphus are written by others. It’s an interesting structure and Lianke switches brilliantly between voices for the different books.
This camp of supposed criminals is made up of the Author, the Scholar, the Musician, the Theologian and many more. All are alike in being desperate to go home. They struggle to win their release in a system that rewards those that turn on each other.
The commander of the camp is the Child – a strange young man who demands that anybody who won’t do as he says kill him. His juvenile desire for approval leads him to agree to anything the higher ups suggest, making promises that can never be kept. But the novel demonstrates that he was far from alone in this flaw. Lianke stresses the dangers of a society where disagreeing with the state is made an offence worthy of re-education.
The struggle to grow unfeasible amounts of crops and then the switch to smelting iron arguably lead to the great famine. Without giving too much away the Author becomes a metaphor for what the state is doing to the country through his behaviour. When famine strikes the book becomes almost unbearably tragic to read. Apart from the devastating chronicle of people starving there are some very disturbing occurrences on top of this. This is a story of how far people will go to survive and the terrible power of guilt.
I would absolutely recommend this to individual readers and reading groups alike. It’s not an easy read considering the subject matter but it is a very good one.
The Four Books by Yan Lianke
Vintage 978-0-099-56949-7 pbk Mar 2016
SECOND OPINION: Satin Island by Tom McCarthy