Life is nothing but a circus. Such is the message of Yan Lianke’s absurdist “Lenin’s Kisses,” a tale of political lunacy and greed set in modern-day China. In this sprawling novel, an ambitious county official forms a traveling freak-show of the disabled. His aim is to raise enough money to buy Vladimir Lenin’s embalmed corpse from Russia to display in China.
“Lenin’s Kisses” mocks the way capitalist practices interweave with Communist ideology in China. First published in Chinese in 2004 and only now translated into English, the novel is set in Liven, a fictional farming village. Though populated almost entirely by the blind, deaf and crippled, the village’s 197 residents carve out a simple, happy existence.
The blind pull the paralyzed in carts who, in turn, lend the blind their eyes. And thanks to the leadership of the revolutionary matriarch Grandma Mao Zhi, who is crippled in one leg, Liven epitomizes true equality—not empty Party rhetoric.
The peace is soon disturbed by the arrival of Liu Yingque, a power-hungry official with big plans and a well-developed sense of -grandeur. Liu is eager to transform the undeveloped county into a tourist hotspot. The Lenin Memorial Hall, he claims, will provide locals with unimaginable riches and make him a luminary on a par with Chairman Mao and Lenin himself.
But there is a catch. Chief Liu must first find funds for the project. He creates the Special-Skills Performance Troupe, a traveling circus made up of Liven residents. Thousands flock to gawk at acts including “Deafman Ma: Firecracker-on-the-Ear” and the teenage “Polio Boy.” The latter’s routine involves squeezing his deformed foot into a bottle, leaving shattered glass in his sole and a trail of bloody footprints across the stage. The audience loves it.
Such biting social criticism is nothing new for Mr. Yan, many of whose books are banned in his home country. His scathing satire “Serve the People!” (2005) even goes so far as to mock the cult surrounding Mao Zedong. In that book, set during the Cultural Revolution, two lovers attain new sexual highs by smashing icons of Mao during intercourse, a sacrilege punishable by death.
That Mr. Yan also turned his attentions to China’s roughly 85 million disabled population is significant. Last year, state media reported that the average income of families with disabled members was just 60% of the national average while only 71% of disabled children have access to education. For these disadvantaged Chinese, prejudice and isolation from society remains high.
As in past works, Mr. Yan steers clear of depicting the world in simple good-evil dichotomies. In “Dream of Ding Village” (2006), a fictional account of Henan province’s 1990s blood-selling scandal and subsequent AIDS epidemic, he portrayed villagers as perpetuators of their own misfortune who eagerly flog their blood for cash. Likewise, the Liven residents are not coerced, but volunteer. Only Grandma Mao objects that the troupe reduces each villager to the status of a “performing monkey.”
A member of the canon of writers who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Yan is known for his magical realism. “Lenin’s Kisses,” true to form, is courageously experimental. The book guides readers to “Further Reading,” flashbacks to characters’ past lives and glossaries that drolly define key terms. A handful of scenes are rendered entirely in dialogue. The novel’s chapters have only odd numbers, which are considered inauspicious in China. To translator Carlos Rojas’s credit, he has faithfully rendered such quirks into English.
Sadly, a few over-drawn plot-lines and exasperatingly repetitive details weaken some of the impact. The book’s messy, chaotic form is part of its charm, but at 500 pages long, it could benefit from at least a little streamlining. We follow the troupe as they travel from city to city where detailed descriptions of their individual performances are reported over and over again. The author could have portrayed this seemingly eternal cycle as a nightmare, but it simply feels tiresome.
“Lenin’s Kisses” is at its best in the simple moments that need no adorning. These include Grandma Mao’s flashbacks to China’s turbulent past. As a young woman she passionately leads Liven to join the revolution. She wants residents to have “a good life in which they have lights that don’t need oil, flour that doesn’t need to be ground, and when they go out they don’t need to ride an ox-drawn carriage.” In reality, collectivization brings death, pain and poverty.
The matriarch watches “wholers” (non-disabled people) from outside exploit the village folk in episodes such as the Great Famine in the late 1950s, when they steal grain and oxen from the disabled. When Grandma Mao tries to intervene she is beaten.
Her disappointment evokes tragedy, alongside her despair at the thought that the revolution has failed her and her village. Her dying wish is to sever Liven’s link from society, and with it, all ties to government and its witless leaders. Mr. Yan presents this as the sensible option, given the alternatives of leadership under egomaniacs such as Chairman Mao, and later on, Chief Liu.
“Lenin’s Kisses” wickedly satirizes a sycophantic society where money and power are indiscriminately worshiped. In contrast to Grandma Mao’s self-doubt and high principles, Chief Liu is so sure of his genius that he erects his own crystal coffin under Lenin’s so that the public can venerate him too after death. As the traveling circus gains fans across the country, it becomes clear that the officials behind the scenes, not the performers, are the true freaks.
If “Lenin’s Kisses” seems far-fetched, consider how current affairs prove that the work cuts close to the bone. In 2009, the southern city of Kunming opened the “Kingdom of Little People,” a theme park where tourists pay less than $13 each to see dwarves from across the country perform skits. In the morally blind land that is China, life imitates fiction.
Photography by Andreas Kontokanis