Lenin's Kisses by Yan Lianke
When the seemingly endless churn of dynasty after dynasty - ruled by successive, bully-boy warlords - finally came to an end at the beginning of the 20th century, the Chinese people might have had reason to hope that times less interesting might lie just ahead.
Trouble was, what came next was a bunch of Big Ideas, as bad and occasionally worse than any of the old despots.
The great upheavals of the Communist revolution and Maoism form the background to Yan Lianke's novel, Lenin's Kisses. The focus is upon the people of the village of Liven (the name, one gathers, is a multi-layered joke deriving from the ability of the Chinese character translated as "Liven" to mean many things), situated in the Balou mountains in Henan Province, Western China.
The unique feature of the villagers is that they are, almost to a man and woman, disabled in some way, the village having been founded when a blind man, his crippled son and a deaf-mute woman were permitted to drop out of a forced march and set up home there.
Liven's village elder is Mao Zhi, who is as old as the Revolution, having enlisted in the Red Army at the age of 11, when her revolutionary parents were killed. She is old and lame, but still a force to be reckoned with. It is she who organises for the village to "enter society" - to be incorporated in the collectivisation of agriculture that Maoist communism decrees.
And then, in the wake of the calamitous famine created by Mao's quixotic industrialisation programme, the so-called "Great Leap Forward", it is Mao Zhi who seeks to have Liven secede from the provincial administrative structure.
Liven is a microcosm for China at large. The way in which the round pegs of humanity were hammered into the square holes of Mao's Big Idea is lampooned by the scheme dreamed up by County Chief Liu, who has heard that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia no longer has the will or wherewithal to continue to preserve the embalmed corpse of Lenin in its glass casket in Red Square.
Liu has decided to buy the corpse, build a mausoleum in the Balou Mountains and make a mint out of the tourists who will flock there to view this holy relic of Communism.
As Liven has just suffered a devastating crop failure, Chief Liu's proposal that the villagers form a salaried performance troupe - a freak show, no less - is just as difficult to resist as his promises of the stupendous wealth that Lenin's corpse will attract.
The show, in which the residents of Liven exploit their "special skills" (aptitudes they have cultivated to compensate for their impairment) is a raging success, at first.
It looks as though everyone will get what they want: Chief Liu will get Lenin's corpse, the villagers of Liven will become fabulously wealthy, and Mao Zhi will see the village "withdraw from society".
But of course, this Big Idea goes the way of all the other Big Ideas with which the Chinese have been for so long afflicted.
At first, Lenin's Kisses promises to be a difficult read. Each short chapter is followed by a set of notes ("further reading", "further further reading", "further further further reading", etc), but the sheer, exuberant absurdism soon draws you in.
Sometimes - it may be a function of translation - the author overdoes the jokes, and some passages are burdened with heavy-handed repetition.
Yet as it turns darker, and the ridiculous, flowery rhetoric of the Revolution is replaced by brutal, naked exploitation, you are reminded of the uncomfortable truth: that the absurdities that the Chinese people have lived through are as tragic and comic as anything a novelist can contrive.
John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.