Liu Zhenyun’s Twisted Tales Do More than Entertain

Sydsvenska Dagbladet, 23rd April, 2019
By Kerstin Johansson
Translated by Nicholas Lawrence

Children of the Times (Barn av sin tid) sees a woman standing up to the authorities. Kerstin Johansson reads of corruption and bureaucracy – as told by the Chinese master of satire.

Literary satire has a long tradition in China and author Liu Zhenyun, in his novel “Barn av sin tid” as much as anywhere else, conserves it well.

Much like in his previously translated books, he skillfully allows the space between the lines to speak volumes. In the novel “Processen,” farmer Li Xuelian has put into motion a legal process which takes her all the way to the offices of the People’s Congress, putting one or two county judges back in their place along the way. We are given an excellent picture of the bureaucratic judicial system, the fear for authorities, the forms which corruption can take, and how a simple farmer, despite everything, and with a little cunning and obstinacy, can succeed in shaking things up. In “Tillbaka till 1942” Liu Zhenyun writes about the famine during the 1940’s and at the same time, without putting it into words, guides the reader towards associations to the Great Famine of the 1950’s – another suppressed moment in history.

In much the same way, the author carries out his craft in “Barn av sin tid”, which begins with a humorous story about a marriage. The main character, Niu Xiaoli, organises a bride for her brother at the enormous cost of 100,000 Yuan. Completely legal of course, a so-called “dowry.” But a few days after the wedding the new bride has disappeared without a trace and Xiaoli realises that she has fallen victim to a fraudster. She leaves the village in pursuit of the absconded bride and, after many an event, the enterprising Xialoi has succeeded in bringing down powerful men, although having herself become much like those responsible for having deceived her.

It’s a twisted tale with countless intricate threads to follow, and which Liu Zhenyun writes with a drastic and burlesque humour. Throughout the various scenes and dialogues of the novel it is more than obvious that the author also works as a scriptwriter. In an outrageously comical – and unpleasant – passage the unsuspecting branch manager Yang Kaituo is seized by the Party, “for investigation,” something which would bring even the most innocent out in a sweat.

I like that Liu Zhenyun has chosen a woman for his main character. China is without a doubt a patriarchal society, but there have always been “troublesome women,” who have stood up to the authorities. Both Niu Xiaoli and Li Xuelian, the main character in “Processen,” are two such women.

As satirist, Lie Zhenyun is skilled at criticizing those in power, but he also has an understanding for what drives his characters, who are allowed, at all times, to remain flesh and blood. He is by no stretch of the imagination a bitter misanthrope.

China’s preeminent satirist of modern times, Lu Xun (1881-1936), was of the opinion that satire described reality, while leaving open for the possibility of solution. In that case the satirical writer is of essence an optimist, one who believes that change is possible. But what exactly is it that Liu Zhenyun wants to say?

In my reading, he wants to do more than just tell a humorous story about corrupt bureaucrats. He wants to issue a warning for what can happen in a society where everybody deceives everybody else; where all the values and traditions of humanism are on the brink of being lost. And he wants to call for action, before it’s too late.

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