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


Why it's time for a female Doctor Who
77083 2017-07-27 09:12:33Z Social issues

Why it's time for a female Doctor Who

by The Listener

Gender equality is lamentably slow-dawning in many endeavours, but TV and film help normalise desirable social trends. However it does cuts both ways.

Read more
Five great places in Auckland for gluten-free eats
77081 2017-07-27 09:09:05Z Auckland Eats

Five great places in Auckland for gluten-free eats…

by Paperboy

Auckland has a whole swag of places where you can eat well gluten-free - here are five of the best.

Read more
Te Papa’s tribute a real Dagg
71078 2017-07-27 00:00:00Z Profiles

Te Papa’s tribute a real Dagg

by Russell Baillie

The late John Clarke left some big boots to fill. Now you can go see them at Te Papa.

Read more
Manawatu Gorge: Simon Bridges hints at big bucks alternative
76903 2017-07-27 00:00:00Z Economy

Manawatu Gorge: Simon Bridges hints at big bucks a…

by Pattrick Smellie

Years of avoiding the question of an alternative road appear to be over.

Read more
How to overcome comfort eating
76877 2017-07-27 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to overcome comfort eating

by Jennifer Bowden

Cutting back on chocolate and other indulgences calls for breaking a vicious cycle of comfort eating. Here’s how.

Read more
Baby Driver's Ansel Elgort on the making of this must-see film
77071 2017-07-26 17:42:03Z Movies

Baby Driver's Ansel Elgort on the making of this m…

by India Hendrikse

Actor Ansel Elgort talks to Paperboy about starring in the hit film Baby Driver, doing stunts, and his contribution to the incredible soundtrack.

Read more
How to stop wasting food: These Aucklanders show us how
77051 2017-07-26 16:04:01Z Social issues

How to stop wasting food: These Aucklanders show u…

by Leisha Jones

Meet some of the Auckland champs turning food destined for the bin into three-course dinners and inventive dishes.

Read more
Jesse Mulligan is giving Mike Hosking a run for his money
77043 2017-07-26 15:40:00Z Profiles

Jesse Mulligan is giving Mike Hosking a run for hi…

by Julie Hill

The Project host talks about government underfunding of DoC, being told to cheer up by Maggie Barry, and wanting to crush Hosking.

Read more