The Four Books

Grove. Mar. 2015. 416p. tr. from Chinese by Carlos Rojas. ISBN 9780802123121. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780802191878. F
OrangeReviewStarYan (Dream of Ding Village) has built his substantial career on exposing the surreal absurdity of China's 20th-century tragedies. His latest-in-translation features the 99th district of a reeducation camp, where intellectuals controlled by a maniacally cruel yet innocently naïve child endure merciless conditions designed to recommit them to communism. Among the Child's prisoners are the Author, the Scholar, the Musician, and the Theologian, who like other inmates must fulfill impossible production quotas in areas from harvesting to smelting, driven by the Child's promises of freedom. Surviving the Great Famine, which experts estimate claimed a staggering 2,043 million victims, has unfathomable costs. Yan's multilayered novel is presented as dovetailing excerpts from the titular Four Books: the Author's Criminal Record, written in exchange for early release; the Author's own Old Course; an anonymous narrative called Heaven's Child; and a philosophical fragment from A New Myth of Sisyphus. The title is also a brilliant evocation of the foreshadowing of death (four and death are homophones in Chinese), Christianity's Four Gospels, and Confucianism's Four Books. Ironically, the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism were the foundation of imperial China's civil service exams, which created the intellectual class: communism's enemies. Books remain significant throughout—hidden, beloved, confiscated, burned.
VERDICT Like Xianhui Yang's unrelenting Woman from Shanghai and Xinran's gentler China Witness, Yan's new work is vital historical testimony. [See Prepub Alert, 9/29/14.]
Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing