Featured Translation: The Four Books by Yan Lianke


There were over 450 new translations published this year, and trust us, we know from experience, keeping track of them all can be a maddening exercise. Each weekday from now until the end of the year we’ll highlight a different title that you may have missed. From short story collections to epic novels, from award winning works of the highest literary caliber to trashy romantic beach reads, we’ll feature the very best, and the very worst that 2015 had to offer, one book at a time.

Four Books by Yan Lianke / Translated from the Chinese by Carlos RojasSo only books that you haven’t reviewed will get the Featured Translation treatment? Isn’t that a little backwards? I’ll admit that it is, but we’re only two people, and as a result, for every book that we do review, there are at least ten that we simply don’t have the time to dedicate to properly. This new series is our attempt to make up for that. If you’ve been reading along this week then you’ve already gathered that the books we highlight here don’t necessarily have to be award winning masterpieces. That’s not the point. Each and every weekday, good, bad, or otherwise, we’ll expose you to a new translation published this calendar year. It’s an opportunity for us, and you, to learn a bit more about some books we may have otherwise all missed out on.

Today’s featured title comes from Franz Kafka prize winning novelist Yan Lianke. The Four Books presents us with a grueling tale of psychological and physical pain from the inside of a reeducation compound for accused rightists during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. This camp is overseen by a young boy known as The Child.  He’s a cruel dictator who relishes in doling out extreme punishments for disobedience and establishing juvenile reward systems to compensate those that have informed on others. Unsurprisingly, the novel is split into four distinct books, each told from the point of view of a different character.

The text be difficult, disturbing, and downright brutal in places:

It seemed remarkable that even after having my five stars burned up, having been savagely beaten, having four men piss on my head, and one of them repeatedly slap my face with his penis until the final drops of urine ran down my cheek, I still didn’t feel at all resentful.

Lianke describes his decision to write whatever he wanted to in spite of China’s strict policy of literary censorship, a system which had previously recalled one of his books and banned another from being published altogether (from Carlos Rojas’s Translator’s Note at the beginning of the novel):

I’ve always dreamed of being able to write without any regard for publication. The Four Books is (at least partially) an attempt to write recklessly and without any concern for the prospect of getting published. When I say that I have written this recklessly and without concern for publication, I do not mean that I have simply written about mundane or contemptible topics, such as coarse and fine grains, beautiful flowers and full moons, or chicken droppings and dog shit, but rather that I have produced a work exactly as I wanted to.

You can learn more about censorship in Chinese publishing by checking out this fabulous interview with translator Carlos Rojas in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Yan Lianke talks about his inspiration for writing the novel in this interview with Words Without Borders.

The Four Books was published by Grove Press in February.

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About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.