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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Lenin's Kisses

Yan Lianke

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To purchase Lenin's Kisses

Title: Lenin's Kisses
Author: Yan Lianke
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 503 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Lenin's Kisses - US
Lenin's Kisses - UK
Lenin's Kisses - Canada
Lenin's Kisses - India
Bons baisers de Lénine - France
Lenins Küsse - Deutschland
  • Chinese title: 受活
  • Tranlsated and with a Translator's Note by Carlos Rojas

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Our Assessment:

B : creative if somewhat rambling satire

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 8/3/2013 Isabel Hilton
The Independent . 8/2/2013 Xiaolu Guo
The National . 19/1/2013 Steve Donoghue
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/1/2013 Jan Stuart
Publishers Weekly . 20/8/2012 .
The Spectator . 2/3/2013 Julia Lovell
Wall St. Journal . 8/11/2012 Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

  From the Reviews:
  • "This baggy but innovative novel, with its wit, humanity and satire, sets a provocative example." - Isabel Hilton, The Guardian

  • "If you can ride out the storm of its stylistic idiosyncrasies you will be rewarded, both with a great ripping yarn, but also the kind of raw literary qualities that can only emanate from a non-European tradition." - Xiaolu Guo, The Independent

  • "The book can be read and enjoyed without being read into; but part of its achievement is the establishment of a perfect Russian-doll critique of China's authoritarian tradition: the contemporary drive to prosperity by whatever means necessary depends on the same vertical power that once imposed revolutionary tyranny, which in turn rests on the bedrock of the permanent utilisation of the ruled by the rulers sedimented over centuries of China's imperial history. The same streak of organised cruelty is common throughout: at times monstrously amplified, at other times streamlined in more rational directions. The book is both a great tragicomic fable and a sustained anarchist critique." - Steve Donoghue, The National

  • "Yan’s postmodern cartoon of the Communist dream caving to run-amok capitalism is fiendishly clever, if overextended, in parodying the conventions of fables and historical scholarship. The ghost of another famous dead Russian, Nikolai Gogol, hovers over the proceedings in spirit, if not in economy of means." - Jan Stuart, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Both a blistering satire and a bruising saga (.....) Yan boldly plunges into the psychic gap between China's decades-old conditioned response to communist doctrine and its redefinition of itself as a capitalist power, creating with bold, carnivalesque strokes a heartbreaking story of greed, corruption, and the dangers of utopia." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Yan lets the irony of his scenario -- a Communist government victimising the poorest and weakest members of society in order to enrich itself with the profits of revolutionary kitsch -- speak for itself; his deadpan presentation makes the satire bite all the harder. But the book is also plausible enough to achieve a realist gravitas. (...) Occasionally, the novel seems a little wordy." - Julia Lovell, The Spectator

  • "The novel's chapters have only odd numbers, which are considered inauspicious in China. To translator Carlos Rojas's credit, he has faithfully rendered such quirks into English. Sadly, a few over-drawn plot-lines and exasperatingly repetitive details weaken some of the impact. The book's messy, chaotic form is part of its charm, but at 500 pages long, it could benefit from at least a little streamlining. (...) Lenin's Kisses is at its best in the simple moments that need no adorning. (...) Lenin's Kisses wickedly satirizes a sycophantic society where money and power are indiscriminately worshiped." - Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lenin's Kisses literally isn't a straightforward narrative, as Yan Lianke immediately makes clear from his presentation: the first chapter is less than two pages long, and comes with five pages of explanatory, digressive footnotes, labeled 'Further Reading'; soon, there are sections with footnotes to footnotes ('Further, Further Reading'), etc. In addition, there are only odd-numbered chapters and footnotes throughout the book, Yan skipping over all the even ones -- suggesting a text (and explanations) where half is missing (or has been suppressed).
       Lenin's Kisses is set in the late 1990s, and centers on the village of Liven. From its Ming dynasty origins on Liven has been populated by the disabled -- "blind people, deaf people, and cripples" -- with those who were then born able-bodied ('wholers') moving out of the village when they were old enough, and disabled people moving in. It's a small town, with a population of less than two hundred -- but the nearby county chief, Chief Liu Yingque, has big plans for the whole area (and for himself).
       Much of Lenin's Kisses is a power-struggle between Grandma Mao Zhi, who is in charge of this unique, outlier village, and the ambitious Chief Liu. After a freak summer snowstorm, with snow falling for an entire week and destroying the village's harvest, Chief Liu shows up, promising money and grain -- and enlisting the locals in his ambitious plan. The centerpiece of his ambitions is a nearby national forest park on Spirit Mountain, where he has already begun construction on, of all things, a grand, new Lenin's Mausoleum. He plans to go to Russia and buy Lenin's corpse and bring it back and install it here, to serve as what he is sure will be the ultimate toruist attraction. He promises that when the mausoleum opens: "you will have more tourists here than ants" -- and be able to make more money than they can imagine.
       To purchase the embalmed corpse he still needs to raise some money, and it turns out the locals can be of help: they can put their talents -- the freakish things they're capable of (or capable of enduring) because of their disabilities -- on display. First one, then two traveling troupes are organized, and from when the Shuanghuai County Special-Skills Performance Troupe first hits the road they're an incredible hit, able to charge outrageous prices and attracting huge crowds. The money just flows in -- though without any banks to deposit it in, hoarding and hiding the stuff actually becomes quite problematic (and will eventually prove even more so).
       Among the few opposed to all this is Mao Zhi, who demands as the price for all the villagers going along with this that Liven finally be granted its complete freedom -- that it can officially: "withdraw from society", as it has long hoped to do. Unfortunately, the villagers get so caught up in money-making -- "the Liven troupe was raking in money as easily as it might rake autumn leaves" -- that they're in no rush to withdraw from society, and even Mao Zhi is co-opted into playing a role in the performances.
       Just as the story begins with disaster -- the snowfall that completely upsets the natural balance -- so too it ends with nothing turning out quite as Chief Liu had promised or planned (and yet also with some semblance of the old (un)natural order preserved). The villagers find that while outsiders might be willing to pay a great deal to see them on display, the 'wholers' aren't to be trusted -- and Chief Liu finds that in trying to buy Lenin's corpse he may have bitten off a bit more than he can chew.
       Lenin's Kisses is a truly sprawling satire. Chief Liu is the embodiment of the local official who takes advantage of the new conditions to implement his own grandiose ideas in a China that is in the midst of a tumultuous transition from communist to Party-dominated capitalist state. From the early scene of a stand-off between the villagers and him -- where he won't begin his speech until they applaud, acknowledging him, and they remain stonily silent, as they, unaware that they're supposed to applaud, wait for him to say something -- to the point where he is regarded as a deity (with peasants buying photographs of him, and hanging them: "alongside the pictures of the bodhisattvas, the stove god, and Chairman Mao"), Chief Liu gets caught up in his own cult of the personality, which shifts from one recognized because of his role as part of the state machinery to one revered for his ability to spread wealth. Indeed, as one of the villagers eventually discovers, Chief Liu plans Lenin's Mausoleum not only to be a memorial to Lenin, but also his own final resting place, as hubris certainly gets the better of him.
       The citizens of Liven, meanwhile, are the physically broken everymen, powerless against the powers that be, and pawns in ridiculous games played by state-representatives -- and, ultimately, wholers. The long-held ambition of separation -- severing ties and withdrawing from society -- is the most radical of alternatives (and surely a shocking concept in a supposedly communist society), but Liven itself is also a true self-contained (and self-sustaining) community -- even if the locals seem to forget that for a while, blinded by the money they rake in so easily. Trying to make the best out of the worst situation that ultimately develops, Mao Zhi suggests even the most horrible act perpetrated against some of the young locals by the wholers has a good side:

That's fine. This way, in the future, everyone in the village will know that wholers are to be feared.
       Yan's satire is unpolished: the rough, messy, and often repetitive narrative seems to be all over the place -- and some of the most promising material (such as the attempt to purchase Lenin's corpse) woefully underutilized. Yet ultimately it all works quite well, the larger-than-life feel and exaggerated events somehow all fitting together, and everything -- especially Chief Liu's precipitous fall -- nicely tied together in the end. One has to adjust to the drawn-out and digressive presentation, but making allowances for it does yield decent rewards.
       Odd and dark fun -- but also nicely layered and revealing -- Lenin's Kisses is a solid novel of near-contemporary China.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 October 2012

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Lenin's Kisses: Reviews: Yan Lianke: Other books by Yan Lianke under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Yan Lianke (閻連科) was born in 1958, and he has won several major Chinese literary prizes.

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