Lenin's Kisses by Yan Lianke - review

by Sam Finnemore / 03 January, 2013
Nobody comes out of it entirely innocent or unscathed in Yan Lianke’s tragi-comic satire.
Lenin's Kisses by Yan LiankeIt starts in what seems like a rural utopia: a backwater village in a backwater Chinese county, missing from official maps since imperial days, Liven is a self-governed community of the disabled, with its own culture and slang built up over centuries of isolation.

Co-operation and extraordinary physical skills honed though disability allow Liven a self-sufficient existence, and life proceeds simply but comfortably right up till the moment of a freak summer snowstorm. Crops fail, disaster ensues and officialdom duly makes a rare visit to Liven, with potentate Chief Liu bearing relief funds and an ulterior motive – he will persuade the disabled people of Liven to form a performing troupe-cum-freak show, all in the name of buying the corpse of Vladimir Lenin from Russia and installing it in a newly built mausoleum to create a permanent tourism bonanza. What could possibly go wrong?

That’s the set-up of Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses, a sprawling, tragi-comic satire of modern China almost as hard to summarise as the country itself. The readiest messages concern the absurdities and collateral damage of light-speed hyper-capitalism, but Lenin’s Kisses draws a broader historical sweep than that, and nobody from the officials down comes away entirely innocent or unscathed.

The promise of gigantic, practically unspendable piles of cash brought by tourists to Lenin’s new final resting place enraptures not just Chief Liu and his colleagues (in several hilarious scenes) but also the villagers, who pack their share of the show earnings away for a return home that never quite comes.

Liven’s matriarch, the redoubtable Grandma Mao Zhi, is opposed to it all from the start and wants Liven once again removed from the maps – but it’s a wish driven by her guilt over the disasters that visited Liven, results of her own grand plan to bring Liven into the new socialist society of the 50s and 60s.

Whimsical and horrifying by turns, layered with traditional Chinese calendar dates and digressive footnotes often as long as the chapters themselves, and structured to quietly draw attention to what can’t officially be said – there are no even-numbered chapters – Lenin’s Kisses doesn’t make many concessions to easy reading or short attention spans.

But that’s hardly the point with something like this, acclaimed in the original Mandarin, ably translated, and rewarding the effort for anyone willing to tackle a no-holds-barred satirical allegory of recent Chinese history.

LENIN’S KISSES, by Yan Lianke (Text, $26).

Sam Finnemore is an Auckland reviewer
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infertile couples
86046 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infe…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For about a third of infertility cases in New Zealand, there is no obvious reason why seemingly fertile couples struggle to conceive.

Read more
Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by photographer John Rykenberg
85964 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by pho…

by Frances Walsh

More than one million images from Rykenberg Photography, taken around Auckland, are now in the Auckland Libraries Collection. But who are the people?

Read more
'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke covered in insects
86027 2018-01-18 11:59:55Z Environment

'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke co…

by Hamish Cardwell

A Golden Bay man spending his first night in his new house says he woke to find his bed, walls and floor covered in hundreds of creepy crawlies.

Read more
Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans
86015 2018-01-18 11:18:49Z Environment

Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want t…

by Sharon George and Deirdre McKay

There's a growing movement to stop the amount of wasteful plastic that goes into our oceans, but what about the tiny bits we can hardly see?

Read more
It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking water
86001 2018-01-18 09:41:15Z Social issues

It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking wat…

by The Listener

The inconvenience to chlorine refuseniks is tiny compared with the risk of more suffering and tragedy from another Havelock North-style contamination.

Read more
Climate change: New study finds worst case scenario might not be as bad
85994 2018-01-18 08:27:48Z Environment

Climate change: New study finds worst case scenari…

by Charlie Dreaver

Global warming's worst case scenario may not be as bad as previously thought, a new climate change study says.

Read more
The science of sibling rivalries
85949 2018-01-18 00:00:00Z Science

The science of sibling rivalries

by Sally Blundell

Who was the favourite? Who got the most? Sibling relationships set up patterns that last a lifetime.

Read more
The Post – movie review
85900 2018-01-18 00:00:00Z Movies

The Post – movie review

by Peter Calder

Meryl Streep shines in Steven Spielberg’s thrilling Nixon-era newspaper drama.

Read more