Julia Lovell

The curse of the mummy

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Lenin’s Kisses

Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas

Chatto, pp. 512, £

The former Soviet Union is so down on its economic luck that it can no longer maintain Lenin’s embalmed body. A brash official from rural China called Liu Yingque decides to buy the deteriorating corpse, create a red tourist attraction in his own county, and so make the area rich beyond its wildest dreams. Liu’s only difficulty is finding the millions of yuan necessary to purchase Lenin.

He soon hits upon a solution: he recruits a performing troupe from nearby Liven, a village in which every resident is disabled in some way, and dispatches them on a nationwide fundraising tour. The travelling freakshow — featuring deaf-mutes exploding firecrackers next to their ears, children with polio-wasted legs running about the stage on broken glass, one-legged men jumping over beds of nails and seas of fire — becomes a runaway success, and within a year Liu has the money to pay off the Russians. In a turnaround typical of high-level Chinese politics, though, Liu is sacked as the deal is about to be struck. His disabled performers are plundered and violated by rapacious officials, then retreat back to the isolated safety of Liven.

This is the brilliantly acerbic plot of Lenin’s Kisses, and its author, Yan Lianke, is one of mainland China’s plainest-speaking novelists. The book’s basic premise is, of course, fantastical; this reviewer has never heard of local Chinese bigwigs attempting to buy up Lenin’s remains (though is not prepared to rule out the possibility that someone, somewhere in China is planning such a money-spinner right now). Yan lets the irony of his scenario — a Communist government victimising the poorest and weakest members of society in order to enrich itself with the profits of revolutionary kitsch — speak for itself; his deadpan presentation makes the satire bite all the harder.

But the book is also plausible enough to achieve a realist gravitas. The shamelessly egotistical Liu Yingque — he displays a portrait of himself next to images of Marx, Lenin and Mao — seems painted from life; the lawless treatment of real dissidents like Chen Guangcheng suggests that provincial China is full of such Communist barons.

The horror stories of exploitation to which China’s economic miracle has given rise (such as the Black Kiln scandal of 2007, in which officials connived with criminal gangs to kidnap thousands of people, many of them children, and compel them to work as slaves in illegal brickyards) makes Yan’s descriptions of abuse depressingly credible. The story is interspersed with frank retellings of Liven’s traumatic experiences under Maoism: the vicious purges of the People’s Liberation Army; the man-made famine of the early 1960s; the terror of the Cultural Revolution.

Occasionally, the novel seems a little wordy. Like many mainland authors, Yan can give the impression of writing at a furious speed, as if he is too outraged by the cruel absurdities of contemporary China to pause to find the most dispassionately precise language with which to describe them. But his account of the final maltreatment of the villagers — at the glorious opening of Lenin’s new gold-and-marble mausoleum, after which the performers are robbed of the money they have earned, starved, beaten and raped — has a tragic power. In Lenin’s Kisses, Yan Lianke movingly chronicles the price that Communist China’s rush to get rich has exacted from its vulnerable rural majority.