The great essayist and story-writer Lu Xun spoke of his nation's tendency to feel collective nostalgia for a "lost good hell." The impulse among Chinese, Lu remarked, was to forever gaze backward, no matter how awful the past, for fear of having to confront a present that is a hell of its own active variety.
In The Fat Years, possibly the most audacious book to have been published by a Chinese author not living in exile since Lu Xun excoriated the atrophied Confucianism of the early 20th century, the "good hell" impulse has been supplanted by an impulse to embrace a "counterfeit paradise."
That counterfeit paradise is the 21st-century China of material growth and prosperity under totalitarian governance. Why the Communist Party, the architect of a string of disasters and vicious crackdowns during its uninterrupted control since 1949, should have retained its legitimacy, and even be enjoying widespread approval, is the subject of Chan Koonchung's radical satire.
Set in 2013 – the novel was first published in Mandarin in 2009 – the story opens with a group of Beijing intellectuals puzzling over the disappearance of a 28-day period two years earlier. They aren't talking in metaphor: In the near future of The Fat Years, most Chinese can't recall what occurred during a month between another global economic crisis and a mandated national campaign of happiness.
Lao Chen, a writer of thrillers, admits that he can't fathom the sight of "so many celebrated and diverse members of the intellectual elite … looking genuinely happy, even euphoric." At the start, he can only conclude that "this must be a true age of peace and prosperity" and that "there's no country in the world as good as China."
Uncovering the actual nature of these "fat years" takes Lao Chen on a road trip to central China, where he reconnects with Little Xi, a beleaguered dissident who can recall that month, and the many crackdowns preceding it, only too well.
The clear trigger for the conceit of The Fat Years is the erasure from sanctioned memory of the events surrounding June, 1989, including the massacre on Tiananmen Square. "They have not forgotten it," a character remarks of younger Chinese, "they have never known anything about it." That, amazingly, is not fiction.
Lao Chen also becomes an unwitting accomplice in the kidnapping by his rebel friends of the senior Communist Party official who masterminded the current amnesia. During their lengthy interrogation, the rebels learn that doses of the drug MDMA, or ecstasy, are being slipped into the drinking water. "Believe it or not, as you wish," the kidnapped official says.
The party veteran isn't referring to the drugging of 1.3 billion citizens. He is defending his actions on the grounds of their sincerity. All that he has done has been "for the sake of the nation and the people." To its credit, the novel makes a case, via the interrogation, for why China has required the governance it has received. It also contains a warning about the rise of a strain of fascism inside the Communist Party, one that could threaten the country's status as a non-practising global empire.
A landmark in the fraught minority tradition of the humanist voice in China, The Fat Years is designed as much for outrage and argument as literary excellence. It is also speaking directly to the Chinese about nothing less fundamental than the fate of their souls under "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics," as some like to call it.
As such, a fine preface by scholar Julia Lovell, along with an excellent afterword and helpful endnotes by the translator, Michael Duke, still might not fill in the gaps for many Westerners. But this novel isn't only essential reading, it is also urgent.
Consider a detail of its author's biography. It is true that Chan Koonchung lives in Beijing, instead of in Paris or Toronto or, worse, a prison in the Chinese gulag. But his novel is still banned in China, despite being apparently widely read and discussed. Author and book equally sit poised between oblivion and, perhaps, real impact. Buy a brave novel by a brave author, and so cheer him on, along with those who share his kind of sincerity.
Contributing reviewer Charles Foran has published 10 books, including the multi-prize-winning Mordecai: The Life and Times.