The Four Booksby Yan Lianke Translated from by Carlos Rojas
Man Booker International Prize finalist Yan Lianke’s most powerful and searing novel yet, about the persecution of intellectuals in a reeducation camp during the Great Leap Forward.
Acclaimed author Yan Lianke’s The Four Books is a daring, darkly satirical story of the dog-eat-dog psychology inside a labor camp for intellectuals during China’s “three bitter years” of famine. Reminiscent of such classics as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Darkness at Noon, Yan’s mythical, symbolic, sometimes surreal tale portrays the absurdity and grotesquerie of this traumatic period, which has been a taboo subject for a half century.
In the ninety-ninth district, a subdivision of a sprawling labor camp in an isolated part of Henan province, a group of highly educated citizens are imprisoned to restore their commitment to Communist ideologies. Here, the Musician and her lover, the Scholar—along with the Author and the Theologian—live inside a community where everyone is encouraged to inform on each other for dissident behavior. The prize: winning political favor and the chance at freedom. They’re overseen by a preadolescent supervisor, the Child, who delights in draconian rules, policing inmates’ conduct, and confiscating books. But when massively inflated production quotas in steelmaking and grain harvesting rise to an unattainable level, the camp dissolves into lawlessness as the prisoners exhaust themselves to meet their goals, eventually trying to grow wheat by feeding the seedlings their blood. As famine and inclement weather arrive, the intellectuals are abandoned by the regime and left on their own to survive.
Divided into four narratives—influenced by the four texts of Confucianism and the four Gospels of the New Testament—The Four Books is an affecting and poetic novel that captures the universal power of camaraderie, love, and faith against oppression and the darkest odds.
“A searing, allegorical view of Chinese society during some of the darkest moments of the Mao era. . . . Yan cements his reputation as one of China’s most important—and certainly most fearless—living writers.” —Kirkus Reviews
“One of the masters of modern Chinese literature, Yan Lianke gives all the pleasures one gets from reading. He can extract humor from the bleakest situation. I wholeheartedly recommend this latest book.” —Jung Chang
“No other writer in today’s China has so consistently explored, dissected and mocked the past six and a half decades of Chinese communist rule. . . . An extraordinary novel, one that both commemorates the state’s victims and defies China’s state-sponsored amnesia.” —Isabel Hilton, Guardian
“One of contemporary Chinese literature’s richest, wittiest, most seductive and powerful novels. . . . A joy to read.” —The Saturday Paper (Australia)
“[The Four Books is] a Chinese novel hailed across the planet as a masterpiece, and I’m normally the first to resist such an imposition before I’ve even opened the thing—but for once, the hype doesn’t go far enough. . . . Stupendous and unforgettable . . . a devastating, brilliant slice of living history.” —Kate Saunders, The Times (UK)
“Arch and playful. . . . [Yan] deploys offbeat humour, anarchic set pieces and surreal imagery to shed new light on dark episodes from modern Chinese history. . . . [A] brave, brilliant novel.” —David Evans, Financial Times
“[The Four Books] is driven by a cold fury at the events it recounts, its satire edged with Swiftian moral disgust. It is unsparing in its picture of the ways in which totalitarian habits of thought seep deep into personal relations, and it is smart in its depiction of how intellectuals get co-opted by the system . . . [Yan’s] fiction of ideas feels hard won and genuine, an expression of sorrow, bafflement, anger, and love.” —Robert Anthony Siegel, The Rumpus
“A satirical tale about abuse of power and the vicious survivalist psychology of people who have been robbed of their moral and intellectual compass . . . brilliantly chilling . . . The Four Books captures an aspect of Chinese life which is hard to imagine and understand for a foreigner, and Yan’s skillful depiction reaffirms why he is China’s most heralded and censored modern writer.” —The South China Morning Post
“A stinging indictment of the illogic of bureaucracy and tyranny . . . the literary structure is tight and the prose incredibly accessible. Readers will have difficulty putting this down.” —Publishers Weekly
“[A] rich and complex novel.” —Booklist
“The Four Books should be celebrated for its originality. . . . A fascinating approach to a daring and interesting subject.” —The Harvard Crimson
Carlos Rojas is the translator of several books by Yan Lianke, including The Day the Sun Died, The Years, Months, Days, The Explosion Chronicles, The Four Books, shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and Lenin’s Kisses. His other translations include Yu Hua’s Brothers, which he co-translated with Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and which was short-listed for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize. He is the author of Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Reform in Modern China, The Great Wall: A Cultural History, and The Naked Gaze: Reflections on Chinese Modernity, as well as many articles. He is a professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University.