Yan is routinely referred to as China’s most controversial novelist, thanks to his scandalous satires about the brutalities of its Communist past and the moral nullity of its market-driven transformation. In “Serve the People!” (2005), set during the Cultural Revolution, a commander’s wife and her young lover become aroused smashing statuettes of Mao and urinating on his books. Since 2016, almost all of Yan’s work—to date, seventeen novels, as well as short stories, novellas, and volumes of essays—has been subject to an unofficial ban. But his international reputation has grown. He won the Franz Kafka Prize in 2014, has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, and is often mentioned as a likely recipient of the Nobel. Yan’s style is experimental and surreal, and he is credited with developing a strain of absurdism that he terms “mythorealism.” As he puts it, “The reality of China is so outrageous that it defies belief and renders realism inert.”
Henan is ground zero for Yan’s mordant imagination, and in his fiction it becomes a world of remorseless venality—of corrupt local officials, amoral entrepreneurs, and peasants with get-rich-quick schemes that prey on desperation and run on an engine of betrayal. “Some of the most memorable events in history happened here, but, during my lifetime, it’s become one of the poorest places in the country,” he told me. “There is no dignity left, and because of that the people of Henan have felt a deep sense of loss and bitterness.”
Yan does not exempt himself from his critique; his books often feature an alter ego, also named Yan Lianke, a hack writer who periodically goes back home to gather material. In “The Day the Sun Died,” which will be published in the U.S. in December, he writes, “For Yan, this town and this village functioned the way that a bank did for a thief—offering him an inexhaustible warehouse full of goods.” Throughout our trip, I noticed him unobtrusively harvesting details for his next book: Who built this recreational center? Where does the funding come from? More often than not, people ended up telling him slightly more than they should.