I had been going through ‘Best Books of 2011’ when I stumbled on The Fat Years, a novel by Chan Koonchung of an uncomfortably real near-future China. For one reason or another, I tend to stray away from contemporary fiction, but after reading the novel’s synopsis and desire for a break after Lowry and Graves, I figured why not?
Set in 2013, China is the only country that has not been affected by the world’s economic crisis. Business is prospering, people are happy, it truly seems to the citizens and Communist party that these are the fat years. Lao Chen, a detective writer much in the style of Dashiell Hammett, seems convinced of the prosperity of The People’s Republic until his old fried Fang Caodi begins searching for a “missing 28 days.”
According to Caodi, 28 days has seemingly disappeared from the calendar(and population’s memory) between the economic collapse and government’s declaration of ‘China’s Golden Age of Ascendancy’. At first unaffected by his old friend’s rant, Chen is convinced after his old flame Little Xi notices the missing days as well.
Chen begins searching bookstores for books about China’s violent history-Tianamen Square, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, etc- with no luck. His former happiness has now turned to depression. Could it be that the government was trying to surpress all the “bad” memories of the past and re-write history? But why is everyone so blindly happy and not protesting? And what really happened to those 28 days? Chen decides to join Little Xi and Fang Caodi to find out.
It’s difficult for anyone to label a piece of literature ‘dystopian’ and not compare it to Huxley or Orwell. Chan thoughtfully pays homage to his predecessors by joking that one of the Party’s “Happiness” policies mirrored that of Brave New World. But Chan doesn’t simply ride Huxley or Orwell’s coattails; his happiness-ridden People’s Republic is a fearful atmosphere previously unseen by many Western readers. While Orwell’s Airstrip One and Huxley’s London A.D. 2540 are frightening in a more mystical sense, Chan’s near-future dystopia reads completely grounded in reality. While it may be a lack of historical knowledge of China on my part, I had to ask myself during the novel, “Reality or fiction?”
The novel, now banned in China, hasn’t completely found the structure that it requires. Split into three sections-the first and second a coherent novel and last being an 90-page epilogue, Chan has trouble deciding if it’s a hard-boiled detective novel like his protagonist Lao Chen would write or a uncensored look at the darker side of the Chinese state. This is especially apparent in the lengthy epilogue where the secrets of the Party are revealed. What had previously read as a pulpy anti-totalitarian story now was filled with an interesting, but utterly dull political rhetoric. Michael Duke makes note of this shift in style in the Conclusion:
“The only vision the Chinese Communist Party has is the overall vision of coming world hegemony, related in ‘The Fat Years’ though in the finale’s lengthy monologue. Some readers may regard this as a tedious “soap box monologue” lacking in drama, but they would be mistaken. Most liberal ethnic-Chinese scholars living in China and abroad regard the last section of the world as very dramatic and the most important part of the book. Important both the delivery and in the content of his monologue. The way it’s written mirrors exactly the way Party leadership taks to the 1.3 billion Chinese. It is how “President” Hu Jintao addresses the ordinary people, while Premier Wen Jaibao seems to have tried to imitate the so-called populism of Mao’s behind-the-scenes- hatchet man Zhou Enlai.”
Chan pens an entertaining story in The Fat Years with frightful consequences. The novel’s detective-like verse reads quickly, but not amateur. It’s a sure-fire gurantee to see the Chinese state in a different way, but not necessarily a negative one. “The mission of the book, if there is one, is to describe China as it is. And that is why I think fiction is the best medium, to let people have a feeling of what it is to be in China today.”, Chan addresses in this South African interview. And that he definitely does. It even leaves us wondering, is it ok to not be completely free?:
“At this point Lao Chen wanted to lay down the heavy burden of history. Can we really blame the common people for their historical amnesia? he asked 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 minefeild in order to oppose the machine of the state? And furthermore, it’s not that all eyewitness accounts and historical memoirs have been banned; there are plently of books still available. Only those books that contradict the Chinese Communist Party’s orthodox historical discourse are totally banned.
Lao Chen considered a new concept: “90 percent freedom.” We are already very free now: 90 percent, or even more, of all subjects can be freely discussed, and 90 percent, or even more, of all activities are no longer subject to government control. Isn’t that enough? The vast majority of the population cannot even handle 90 percent freedom, they think it’s too much. Aren’t they already complaining about information overload and being entertained to death? “
* I’m thankful having read this book on an e-reader. Chan alludes in necessary detail the past crimes committed by his government frequently throughout the novel. Having a handy dictionary tool, I remained in the loop,