Every once in a blue moon you stumble upon a book that is so absorbing, so rich, you feel its aftershock long after you put it down. Life feels a little deeper, a little more illuminated, and your bar for exceptional writing is raised a few notches. Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles was one of these experiences for me. The Explosion Chronicles is a satirical history of Explosion, a burgeoning municipality, written by a not so fictional chronicler named Yan Lianke, who documents Explosion’s growth from village to metropolis. The story is both big and small; Explosion’s history is sweeping, but the novel itself is full of fascinating moments, illustrated by a force that feels mythical in its ability to pull in the natural world. Flowers bloom or die in response to events, weather is subject to persuasion. Explosion’s rapid growth lies at the hands of the Kong family, namely its second oldest son, Kong Mingliang, who will stop at nothing to see Explosion rise to its urban peak.
As long as you can earn money, then apart from murder and arson there is nothing you shouldn’t be willing to do.
As a satire, the book is heavily nuanced with historical references that might be harder to detect as a Western reader, though Carlos Rojas, the book’s translator, offers key history and insight in his own forward to the story. He explains the political nature of Chinese history, and the co-opting of writers to create their own individual local chronicles, which are, of course, highly subjective and questionable as sound historical documents. The premise of The Explosion Chronicles is just this; Yan Lianke writes himself into the book as one of these writers elicited to document Explosion’s history, though he states to the powers that be in the beginning that his aim is to write literature and not flat history. From this intention, The Explosion Chronicles (and the chronicling of Explosion) begins.
Explosion is doomed from its start by some fairly hefty prophetic warnings, and even as we experience Explosion’s burgeoning growth, we understand its financial success to be completely fraudulent. Kong Mingliang accepts a governmental challenge to grow Explosion’s financial portfolio to a certain level, and achieves this via some good old fashioned theft. He and his fellow villagers loot coal and coke from passing trains to turn around and sell. This plans proves to be successful, and somehow these operations are able to continue on increasingly larger scales. The only other source of income possible in Explosion is prostitution, though this also is shockingly successful. Zhu Ying, Kong Mingliang’s predestined wife, is the leader of this prostitution ring, leaving Explosion to earn money as a prostitute elsewhere, only to return with her newfound wealth (and power) to implement Explosion’s own red light district. An economy built on stolen goods and sex doesn’t bode well for stability, and is certainly questions the morality of capitalist excess, or money for the sake of money. Do what sells; forget the rest.
There is also an inherent sexism to this set up; men are pillagers, and women are the objects to be pillaged. The only value a woman has in Explosion is to sell her body. After Zhu Ling has Kong Mingliang’s son, she is essentially worthless and is confined to their home, which Kong Mingliang never visits. Kong Donde’s wife, the brothers’ mother, remains nameless. When faced with the possible death of her husband she laments:
“If he really does die, that actually wouldn’t be a bad thing.” Her mother-in-law drank some water, then added slowly, “If he were to die, I could then lead a real life.
The most fascinating part of the book is its use of mythorealism, which creates a distinct visual quality to the narrative. Explosion feels starkly black and white until the natural world responds. Explosion’s national identity, fertility (both in the deflowering of women and menstruation), and, of course, the human sacrifice involved in its growth are colored red. Flowers brightly burst forth to acknowledge successes, plants wither and die when initiatives fail. Land is cleared with severed fingers used as explosives, and running blood paves new streets. In the end, all of this effort is in vain, as Kong Mingliang and Zhu Ying are too blinded by the vanity and greed of their own metropolitan pursuit to anticipate the cost of their haste. In order for Explosion to be granted a metropolitan designation, Kong Mingliang must build both and airport and subway system within a week. His military leader brother, Kong Mingyao, has the resources to do this, and requests a deceptively simple favor in return. Kong Mingliang hastily agrees to this favor and unknowingly seals Explosion’s doomed fate.
They heard Mingyao read out a statement titled “Arrogance Will Lead to Extinction,” then inform the Americans that China wanted peace but would not tolerate being bullied, and that the people of Explosion sought greater prosperity but would not tolerate fraud and deception.
It is easy to get lost in the book and forget that it is a story within a story until Lianke delivers a perfectly succinct jab at its close, and as if the novel itself weren’t powerful enough, the afterward written by Lianke proved to be just as moving and powerful as the 450 pages that precede. His own words will speak infinitely louder than any attempt on my part to summarize them, so I’ll let them speak for me in conclusion. In speaking of the book’s literary devices:
Mythorealism, meanwhile, captures a hidden internal logic contained within China’s reality. It explodes reality, such that contemporary China’s absurdity, chaos, and disorder together with non-realism and illogicality all become easily comprehensible. In the chaos of today’s China, once novels succeed in grasping the wild roots growing under the soil of reality, the significance of reality itself pales in comparison.
*Photo credit: Rebecca Sims