Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Fat Years - Chan Koonchung

The Fat Years is a novel that caught my attention when I read an article about it on BBC News. It is apparently quite popular in mainland China despite being banned. The author had to publish it in Hong Kong to escape censuring by the Chinese government and the English publisher makes the most of this fact by proudly proclaiming it on the cover. The book was first published in Chinese in 2009 and has appeared in English translation for the first time earlier this year. Somewhere between a thriller and near future science fiction, The Fat Years is a novel that is clearly written by someone from a very different literary tradition and cultural background. It made me wonder if I have enough knowledge on the subject matter to fully appreciate it.

In the year 2013, China has entered a new period in its history, an era of rising living standards, widespread contentment of the population, increasing political influence on the world stage and a social stability that appears to be unshakable. For two years not, the communist party has taken the nation down the road of this Golden Age of Prosperity and Contentment. Why is it then, that nobody can clearly recall the events that lead up to this momentous announcement by the Chinese government? A whole month during a vicious global economic crisis seems to have disappeared from public consciousness. Contentment may be near universal, there are always people who ask awkward questions and won't stop digging for the truth.

I guess the publisher foresaw the problem I mentioned in the introduction. The novel opens with a lengthy preface by Julia Lovell, translator and lecturer in modern Chinese history and literature at the University of London. It comments on the human rights situation in China, the censorship by the Chinese government and the level of success of this policy as well as censorship in modern Chinese literature and the reception of Chan's novel. Normally I am not too fond of lengthy prefaces, I like to make my own mind up about books, but in this case it is recommended reading. Ms. Lovell did not translate the novel. That job was done by Michael S. Duke, who adds a translator's note at the end of the novel. It mostly deals with the political and social developments portrayed in the book and how realistic the might be. Again very much worth reading but finish the novel first or you will have it's ending spoiled for you.

Chan's novel is sure to strike a nerve with readers in the west. It is not hard to see the criticism on the Chinese government worked into the novel. He mentions the situation in Tibet, the suppression of the Falun Gong the Uygur unrest in western China, the Tianamen protests of 1989, the failed policies of Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Have your president mention any of these is guaranteed to cause a diplomatic incident these days. Usually followed by some large business deal being made with a rival. In the novel Chan portrays the Chinese government as a government who feels that for the good of the people, they ought to be in charge. Their new style of leadership allows the people 90% freedom, which, the leaders think, is vastly preferable for the majority of the population over the chaos that would be the result of the communist party loosing its grip on power. It's a disturbing thought, and one that contains more than a bit of truth.

Political and social changes in China are discussed throughout the novel but the focus on the early part is mostly on the mystery of the missing month. There is a sense of fear and suspicion in the characters that know the month has gone from the collective consciousness of an entire people. Questioning the course of the government and state approved history is dangerous to say the least. And what if they are the only ones to remember? Some characters question their sanity, some display paranoid behaviour but they do continue investigating the matter. They are an interesting bunch of people.

Chan does some things that would have a western editor roll their eyes. In fact, I very much doubt this would have left the slush pile in the US. Things like show, don't tell, avoid info dumps, and don't stick the climax of your novel in the epilogue need to be ignored to enjoy this novel. It contains lengthy passages describing the characters' motivation and history and does not shy away from discourses on politics and economics. The most unusual thing about the novel is probably the 80 page epilogue, which takes the shape of a lengthy monologue and is the dramatic highlight of the novel.The translator actually comments on the different perceptions of Chinese and western readers. Despite the rambling character, lean towards the Chinese view. It is a piece of writing that captures the euphoria and megalomania in equal measure. Clearly not feasible, but with enough realism to make the western reader feel uncomfortable about the way Chinese leaders see their position in the world.

I suppose I can see why the Chinese government would not be thrilled with the publication of The Fat Years. I think the answer to the riddle of the missing month is so over the top however, that nobody would take it too seriously, including the censors in China. It does offer the western readers a glimpse of life in urban China that we don't often get to see. It shows a level criticism of the government, discussions on various historical events that are usually taboo and a number of frank comments of sexuality that  from an author living in Beijing rarely encountered by the western reader. It probably lacks something of the excitement of reading a banned book that it would have for someone living in mainland China but it is well worth reading nonetheless. As long as the reader has a little patience with the writing style, that is.

Book Details
Title: The Fat Years
Author: Chan Koonchung
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 318
Year: 2011
Language: English
Translation: Michael S. Duke
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-385-61918-9
First published: 2009

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