The Four Books

Written by Carlos Rojas (trans.) Yan Lianke
Review by Juliet Waldron

This is an allegorical novel set during Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, in a labor and re-education camp for intellectuals. Musician, Scholar, Author and Theologian are gathered together with others of their kind in the “ninety-ninth district,” a barren wasteland, and assigned impossible tasks. They are expected to smelt iron from sand, using, for fuel, the few remaining trees and pick and shovel labor. They must also grow bumper crops on fields of sand, which task, in desperation, leads one man to open his veins in order to enrich the soil. Driven by constant hunger and fear, the desire to escape becomes overwhelming. Any remaining bonds between friends and lovers are severed as people turn upon one another to earn the precious paper stars that will gain them release. This grotesque exercise is overseen by a preadolescent fanatic, whose purity of belief and simple- (and single-) mindedness are unique qualifications for the task of government overseer.

The author, a famous Chinese satirist whose works are frequently banned, was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and has also won the Franz Kafka Prize. The translation delivers the pain, rage and black humor of the original, as Yan Lianke sets Maoist mythology beside mythologies of the West, prominently, that of Sisyphus. The Four Books is a tough but rewarding read, supremely relevant in a modern world increasingly beset by the madness of fanaticism.