This novel frightened me several times. Here is how Chan Koonchung, brought up in Hong Kong but now living in Beijing, does it. He sets the story in a very near future, 2013, that closely resembles China today, but with two creepy additional elements: an entire month, during 2011, has vanished from most written records, and almost everyone feels happy all the time. In addition to not missing the vanished month, people no longer remember the Maoist persecutions, the 1959-1961 famine in which 45 million starved to death, and the Tiananmen killings. Chen, the novel’s central character, who has spent most of his life in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but now lives in Beijing, was a moderately successful writer before he moved to China — and now can’t write a word. But he is happy, as is nearly everyone else — except for Little Xi, an (almost) girlfriend from long ago, and a few others. Needless to say, the novel was published in Hong Kong, not China.
This is not the grim state of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four; in The Fat Years the Party state provides most people with more than their material means; intellectuals have never had it so good, and businesses like Starbucks and shopping centres are thronged with well-off customers.
I found this disturbing because, apart from the missing month, it is mostly true today. Many Chinese under the age of 30 are products of an educational system in which the past has been meticulously distorted. For them, Mao was a hero who restored China to international greatness, the famine resulted from three years of bad weather and Soviet manipulation, and Tiananmen was an anti-government ‘riot’ engineered by ‘trouble-makers’. To describe the Cultural Revolution in negative terms is dismissed by many urban Chinese as ‘anti-Chinese’ or, worse, ‘destabilising’. The Party has sold ‘stability’ to hundreds of millions as the reason for the relative prosperity in which many now bask.
But Chen is being got at by a few friends, like Little Xi, who are not endlessly happy and know about the missing month. Most of the time he resists them: he watches television, reads the papers, and has intelligent friends. ‘I didn’t like to think that any major event had escaped my notice. I believed in myself — my knowledge, my wisdom and my independent judgment.’ He goes to an intellectual soirée and notices, with pleasure, the guests ‘harmoniously gathered together in one place looking genuinely happy, even euphoric … This really must be a true age of peace and prosperity, I thought to myself.’
Indeed. Chen is living in the officially designated Golden Age of Ascendancy, (the Chinese, is ‘Shengshi Zhongguo 2013,’ ‘Ascendant China 2013’) and every day, when he goes for his Lychee Black Dragon Latte, he feels happy because Starbucks, now part of a global, Chinese-owned consortium, is ‘a wonderful expression of China’s soft power’.
Chen is a book collector and one day visits a famous bookshop. ‘So many people are still reading books. Terrific! The sweet smell of books in a literary society.’ He goes down to the empty basement. He wants a particular book, but he can’t remember its name. ‘I suddenly felt I couldn’t breathe. Was the basement air that bad?’ Later he meets
Little Xi’s son, from whom she is estranged. Now a well-placed, sinister member of the Propaganda Department, he tells Chen: ‘The Propaganda Department guides the spiritual life of the entire nation … Everything is under the Party’s and the government’s control; they know everything.’
Little Xi tells Chen that when she was a judge she refused to sentence people to death simply to meet quotas, and one day she woke up in a mental hospital:
I started to talk about the past, especially the events around 4 June, 1989. They didn’t want to talk about it; their faces went blank. When we talked about the Cultural Revolution, all they could remember was the fun they had when they were sent down to the countryside … They didn’t even know how to remember the bitter past … Certain collective memories seemed to have been completely swallowed up by a cosmic black hole, never to be heard of again.
Because Chen has spent most of his life outside China he is aware of what others have forgotten. He goes to the Chinese Amazon site and discovers that there are no books on that awful past. ‘He hadn’t realised that history had been rewritten and that the true facts had been airbrushed away.’ He comforts himself: ‘Should we force the younger generation to remember the suffering of their parents’ generation? Do our intellectuals have a duty to walk through a minefield in order to oppose the machine of state?’ After all:
Only those books that contradict the Chinese Communist Party’s orthodox historical discourse are totally banned: we have 90 per cent freedom. We are already very free now; 90 per cent, or even more, of all subjects can be freely discussed, and 90 per cent, or even more, of all activities are no longer subject to government control. Isn’t that enough?
(For some years I have heard British champions of modern China say almost exactly these words.)
I’m not going to reveal exactly how the Chinese Party state in 2013 managed to erase a month and make everyone happy. It’s not quite what you might imagine. A high official, kidnapped by Chen and his friends, tells them that most of China’s leaders ‘can definitely recall those 28 days, and they are also fully aware that the whole nation is suffering from a form of both collective and selective amnesia.’ Selective is the key word here. The official explains what is only too true:
If the Chinese people themselves had not already wanted to forget, we could not have forced them to do so. The Chinese people voluntarily gave themselves a large dose of amnesia medicine.
Michael S. Duke has skillfully translated this novel and evoked its creepiness. And both he and Julia Lovell contribute interesting and important introductory analyses.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 20, 2011