Jonathan Mirsky

Ignorance is bliss

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

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.

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