It is a feat within itself to translate a novel from Chinese to any Western language, as you’re not only needing to translate the words, but the culture, expressions and history behind them, telling the story in a way that a western audience can understand, while keeping as much of the author’s original style and intentions as present as possible. This problem is tripled in the case of Yan Lianke’s most recently translated work, Lenin’s Kisses, for whom the unenviable job belonged to translator Carlos Rojas. Rojas should be applauded here, for he not only was required to translate this rather meaty novel in the manner previously stated, but has also had to translate a specific regional dialect from a particular area of China (the He Nan province), as well as a wealth of wandering footnotes that finish each chapter, almost becoming chapters themselves. The linguistic character of the writing must be retained, whilst also being able to be enjoyed and understood by English speaking readers, and to have achieved this is a feat within itself.
Because of this skilled translation, the full effect of this absurdist story is able to shine through. It focuses on a small village in the Balou mountains of Russia whose population almost completely consists of disabled and handicapped inhabitants, who have settled in the village over the years because of its reputation as a sort of haven for the disabled. As a result of the variety of their disabilities, they are able to help each out in the running of the town’s farms and activities in a kind of tongue in cheek communist idyll. The town’s harmonious existence is brought under threat however, when in the middle of summer a freak snowstorm causes their crops to die. In the wake of this, a county official visits the town looking to make a name and save the town; he suggests to the inhabitants that they start up their own travelling ‘freak show’ as a way to make money. With this money, the official intends to buy the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin and install it for display in a shrine-like mausoleum near the town to attract tourism to the area. The results from this plan are, unsurprisingly, catastrophic and darkly comic.
Much of the story’s events, and the official’s capitalistic desires satirise similar events in China’s recent history, and it is not hard to see why Yan Lianke’s work has been so heavily censored in his home country. Conversely, he has also been lauded with some of China’s top literary prizes, and upon reading his highly allegorical writing, you can understand how he is able to tiptoe the line between being prized and shunned within his country. The writing itself is probably the most challenging part of this book, immense in detail and twisting from the main narrative to extended anecdotes in the footnotes that run longer than their chapter of origin, it can be hard to keep your head on top of the principal story as well as the many extended tales of the numerous characters. You’ll be rewarded if you stick with it, and you’re unlikely to read anything quite like this ever again.