Indie book a month - Serve the People

8 October 2012 / Leave a Comment
Serve the people Yan Lianke

I've always had a bizarre interest in Communism.  As an exchange student in Latvia in the mid-1990s I collected Soviet memorabilia; a fluffy ear hat, army coat and military badges - much to the horror of my Latvian host parents. I have succumbed to red tourism, seeking out Soviet statue graveyards in Lithuania and infamous embalmed Communist leaders lying in state. So I was captivated already when I read in a review that Yan Lianke's novel Serve the People had been banned in China because it 'Slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex ... Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it or report on it.'

Set in 1967, Serve the People is about Wu Dawang, a low-ranking soldier who works in the house of the powerful Division Commander. While the Division Commander is away, his wife Liu Lian seduces Wu Dawang by leaving a sign for him on the kitchen worktop with the political slogan 'Serve the People' - to let him know she wanted some servicing up in the bedroom. It starts off as a frightening chore for Wu, but then turns into a beautiful and somewhat complex love affair.

This is the first book by Yan Lianke to have been published in Australia and in English. The English translation was commissioned by the British publisher Constable & Robinson and Melbourne publisher Text acquired the ANZ rights for the book. Since then Text has worked with Constable & Robinson in the UK and Grove Atlantic in the US to publish Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village and they will soon publish a third titled Lenin's Kisses. For me, Serve the People was a surprisingly accessible and humorous introduction to contemporary Chinese literature that reflects on the absurdity of Mao's regime. Whilst there is a serious backdrop to the novel, it avoids being heavy, instead allowing us to enjoy Wu Dawang's dream to escape peasantry and climb the military and Party ranks and have a lively romp along the way.

I did cheat a little in my choice to read this in my indie book a month mission. I had pledged to read books by debut novelists and while this is not Yan Lianke's first novel, it is his debut in English. And it's an important debut - in that we now get to read stories like this. Independent publishers are going to play a major role in discovering Chinese literary writers, translating them and bringing them to a non-Chinese speaking audience. Contemporary Chinese artists are now the superstars of the art world, such as Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang, it will be fascinating to see whether Chinese writers can have the same affect on the world's stage.


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