BEIJING – Two qualities not always common in great creators coincide in Yan Lianke: he is one of the best novelists in China, if not the greatest, and also a hospitable and charming man with whom you can chat for hours about literature, his country and today’s world.
The writer welcomed EFE to his home in Beijing and invited us with his wife to a succulent “hot pot” -a pot of boiling water into which the Chinese throw all kinds of food-, as a prelude to a conversation of more than six hours about his life and what he calls the “spiritual realism” of his work.
His latest novel in Spanish “The Death of the Sun” has just been published: a creepy dystopian satire about a town in which its sleepwalking people are carried away by their innermost hidden drives and desires, leading to the collapse of the system by the dead, just like in the current pandemic.
Yan, 62, awarded prestigious Chinese and international prizes and a regular candidate for the Nobel Literature prize, does not mind not being able to publish his books in his country as long as he can continue to write freely, although he is terrified that there will come a time when he will not be able to.
In “The Death of the Sun” you appear as a character, a famous author immersed in a creative crisis whose books nobody reads. Are you worried about falling into that state?
I wanted to show a different image of Yan Lianke. Personally, I am always afraid that a time will come when I will no longer be able to write. I think I will be able to write well until I am seventy, not anymore after that.
Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa believed that from the age of eighty, the second childhood, is when an artist can create his best works.
I have not found an example of a writer who at age 80 writes better than at 40. The books of older writers have no comparison with those they made when they were younger. Painters or filmmakers are different, they can paint very well when they are old. There are painters who always paint horses or shrimp, but a writer cannot write about the same thing all his life.
Could what happens in “The Death of the Sun” happen in our current society?
What is currently happening in China may be more interesting than a fictional story. In the book, relatives are waiting to cremate a deceased and give money to those who will take care of that work. I took that out of reality, it happened to me. When my uncle died, my younger brother came with wine and tobacco for those at the funeral home because “if not, they won’t burn him well,” he said.
Life in China is the same as in my novel. Reality and fantasy are the same thing.
What happens in my novel is not going to happen completely in real life but it has very close ties. In the book, the entire town is dreaming, but in my town it is normal for three or five people to sleepwalk and go to the fields to work in the middle of the night.
“The Death of the Sun” is real life, it is not political. The bosses are high up there, like an emperor with delusions of grandeur, and the rest are like his servants, his workers.
Is man good or cruel by nature?
The nature of human beings is very complicated. If we live completely in accordance with nature, the darkest place is going to explode.
Human beings have a good and a bad part, but if we only live with natural tendencies, the darkest part will come out. When we dream we can do what is forbidden during the day: steal, hit or whatever. During the day we function with reason, but we lack that contention while dreaming.
My novel is not intended to answer to that question, but it is a deep exploration of human nature.
Reason helps us but can it also hinder us? Does the dream of reason produce monsters?
Human beings need reasoning, if we lose our reason the world would be in chaos. We cannot say if the reason is good or bad, but we can say that contamination is an example of its abandonment. The exploration of space is also a loss of reason. The development of China is very fast and crazy, something I tried to show in “The Death of the Sun” and in my previous novel, “Chronicle of an Explosion.”
We talk a lot about robots now, but robots can cause problems that we cannot predict. Robots are our dream but they can turn into monsters.
Currently we control robots, but it is possible that they control us in the future. A few years ago they wanted to modify human genes, it is completely unreasonable.
China needs, at least now, more reason. And the world too.
With the pandemic, some people are experiencing great nightmares. Yesterday, a person from Spain wrote to me telling me that it was a one-year nightmare for his family. Although those who are dedicated to producing masks or vaccines are living a very beautiful dream.
Like that of a basketball player from the US, which I read about recently, who makes $12,000 every minute, the equivalent of what we earn in a year, it is crazy.
Throughout human development, when reason is lost, nightmares always follow.
The Chinese education kills the nature of children, they have many classes, a lot of work, they are busy all day.
What literature or what authors have marked you the most in your work?
Each stage is different, when I was less than 20 years old, it is incredible, but I did not read any foreign books. It was the period of the cultural revolution and I thought that they were all the same as ours.
At the end of the sixties I read the first one: “Gone with the Wind,” after seeing the photo of the actress from the film. I thought: how interesting foreign books, more than ours.
Later came Japanese and American literature and when I was 30 years old I became very interested in Latin American literature.
Juan Rulfo was my greatest influence, he made me go from realism to imagination. I love “Pedro Paramo,” I have read it three or four times, it broke the limits between reality and fantasy. It was first published in China under the title “Between the Human and the Phantasmagoric” and later recovered its original name. It also influenced me to include myself as a character in “The death of the sun.”
Then I started reading a group of Latin American authors, at least ten, and I liked them all. Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Borges, Alejo Carpentier.
Latin America has the greatest literature of the 20th century, there is no other that surpasses it. It is a point of arrival, like a terminal. After the Latin Americans, Salman Rushdie of India is the best, although his own books have ties that cannot be separated from Latin America.
The Spanish language has made a great contribution to world literature. It´s completely different compared to Chinese literature in those hundred years. I also like Eastern European literature a lot but each stage is different, changing my favorite authors helps me a lot to write, if I never changed them it would be a bad thing for my writing.
When did you start writing?
I started writing novels in my town when I was 16 or 17 years old. I wrote Xiangsheng comedy pieces (comic dialogue between two actors very popular in Northern China.) After entering the Army in 1978, I was the only one who had a high school degree, so they put me in charge of the bookstore.
In 1982, I was in the Army propaganda department where I wrote speeches for the chiefs. I wrote speeches for my bosses during the day and novels at night. Every year I could publish a few short or medium sized novels. I published a novel in the Army newspaper and I became very famous among my colleagues.
This was so until 1993, when I went from Henan to Beijing with the military and there I became a professional writer.
When did your problems with censorship start?
When I wrote “Lenin’s Kisses” in 2004 the Army fired me and I started working as a professional writer in the Beijing Writers Association.
That book was quite popular, the year it was published it sold 100,000 copies, then about 20,000. In the last six years the situation in China has changed a lot and it is no longer found in bookstores, although it is still available online.
Then I wrote “Serve the People” which was totally banned by the propaganda department and it caused me problems.
Before publishing the next book, “The Ding Village Dream,” I worked hard to make sure it was not banned, but once again it was.
I received a letter telling me that in many towns in my province, Henan, people had become infected with AIDS by selling their blood. I traveled with an anthropologist to one of those towns where they had been infected by donating blood to get money. People who had nothing to eat, who lived without electricity.
After that book, people began to say I was the most controversial writer in China. I think I was misunderstood in the world since then. The media explains my books from a political perspective and people read them like that, but my books are not political. They said that “The death of the sun” alludes to Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream but it has nothing to do with it, when I started writing it Xi was not yet president. I need eigth to ten years, for long novels, including the time they hang around in my head.
Since then I have had difficulties publishing and republishing. Here my novels are always linked to politics, which gives me great headaches.
In western countries politics and life are separate but in China you cannot separate them, it is a part of life. Getting out of poverty, for example, for Chinese peasants is a matter of life, but in China it is always related to politics. The government says “plant this in this land and that in the other,” it involves itself a lot into the lives of the people here. But western countries also misunderstood my book, not just the Chinese government.
I have problems publishing my works here since 2006, it is increasingly difficult. The books I want to republish should be reviewed again. Out of 30 or 40 novels that I have written, I have published six in China, but then when I want to republish them I can’t. There is only one book of mine in the bookstores right now, one which is not important that is not translated. The rest only online.
Are you not concerned that your books cannot be read in your own country?
I no longer care if I can publish or not, but writing books is important. My life is fine, I teach at university, my son is grown up, I don’t care much if I can publish or not, being able to write is fine. Personally for me, it is more important to write freely.
China is different now than 40 years ago, during the cultural revolution, so if you wrote, you were responsible for what you wrote, and now the government only cares about publishing and does not create problems for you to write. I am very happy that I can still write.
China’s control changes, it’s random. My books are all published in Hong Kong and Taiwan, before you could buy them from there but now you can’t. Some can be purchased online, not in an official edition. There are people who bought my books in Hong Kong or Taiwan and then printed them themselves so they could distribute them.
Have you ever received a call or had a visit from a government official to tell you something?
Never, writing is free here, publishing is difficult. It is an achievement of the opening forty years ago.
By abandoning fame, reputation and profits in China perhaps one can write better. I am content to explore possibilities to publish my articles.
Is it still possible to make a better world or are we going towards a worse one?
I think the development is upwards but not in a straight line but in a spiral. We take three steps forward and two steps back. It is not that there is no hope for China, that it will be better.
It is already dark when Yan shows us his library and his desk. Rows of glass shelves that cover all the walls of the room. He takes out books by Hispanic authors from the immaculate library and leaves them on a couch. More than thirty volumes are scattered on the sofa. Among them, a Chinese version of Don Quixote, “Corazon tan Blanco” by Javier Marias, and two of his most beloved book: “Pedro Paramo.”