Reading: ‘The Fat Years’ by Chan Koonchung (translated by Michael S. Duke

The Fat Years (《盛世 中国 2013年》) is a book that attracts a variety of theme-demarcating phraseology. Words like “dystopia”, “scfi” and even the provocative “thriller they banned in China.”

At this point, a quote from TV show Archer seems apt:

Lana: “Animal Farm is a book!”
Archer: “No, it’s not Lana. It’s an allegorical novella about Stalinism by George Orwell!”

Perhaps some novels are too specific to be categorised, like trying to wedge a chiliagon-shaped peg through a square hole. Wikipedia settled on “speculative fiction.”

The plot (sans spoilers)

The Fat Years – be it a scifi, satire, or even a “speculative fiction” – takes place in 2013, a stone’s throw from the novel’s original publication in 2009. In this brief imagining (or indeed now re-imagining) of the year, China has entered the prosperous Golden Age of Ascendancy , economically blooming while the rest of the world wilted, dried, crumbled and then dissolved into financial crisis in 2009.

We meet Old Chen, a Taiwanese writer living a comfortable life in Beijing. However, Old Chen’s life of Lychee Black Dragon Latte libations is in fact so comfortable that he’s rather shaken up by the revelation that an entire month has gone missing from 2009. As the book zigzags from the echelons of Chinese society to the very grassroots, Old Chen and his friends – online activist Little Xi and the travelled Fang Caodi – grow closer to remembering the truth behind those crucial 28 days.

Behind the book

Chan Koonchung (陈冠中), author of The Fat Years, was born in Shanghai and has lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the United States. In an interview with Words Without Borders, Chan discusses how a kaleidoscope of influences helped shape the novel, from his upbringing in Hong Kong to Beijing’s intellectual circles. His unique perspective forms the initially indirect, and eventually frank verdict on contemporary China.

If you are reading the translated version, the forward by Julia Lovell and the acknowledgements by the book’s translator, Michael S. Duke, are illuminating contextual bookends. Julia Lovell describes how mainland publishers promptly pulled up the drawbridge upon reading the first drafts. Covering subjects including Tiananmen, underground religion and government-level corruption, the book was quickly flagged up by internet censors who deleted online copies.

“Banned in China” often lends a imagined scenario of red alarms trilling as soon as the material in question is in sight of the Chinese coastline. Though no official publishers were willing to handle the material,  The Fat Years still circulated unofficially on the mainland, provoking discussion under the censor’s radar.

What are the central themes (some spoilers)?

The Fat Years may be unique in that its applicability to reality transforms as the years go on. Rather than being limited by its ‘2013’ title, the book’s wide-ranging subject matter is still thought-provoking in today’s 2017. Publishers, lawyers and environmental issues are by no means outdated topics, though seldom discussed on the mainland.

Russell Jacoby’s theory of ‘social amnesia’, or collective amnesia, is a term frequently applied to China’s treatment of the past. Ironically it’s no secret that potentially fractious search-terms can draw up a blank of Chinese servers.

The Financial Times descried The Fat Years as “a not-so-veiled satire of the Chinese government’s tendency to make dates such as the Tiananmen massacre of June 4 1989 virtually disappear,” However, the novel also shines a light on self-censorship, often termed a side effect of state-controlled media.

“-how could I not be concerned about preserving my stable and peaceful life?” – pg 131.

In The Fat Years, economic advancement precludes social freedoms, in the wide scale format of the ‘forgotten month’ that no Beijinger can recall, to the small scale protagonist striking the balance between conformity and comfort. The existence of the The Fat Years is itself an example of a novelist approaching topics that other writers prefer to give a wide berth.

“What I want to tell you is that, definitely, the Central Propaganda organs did do their work, but they were only pushing along a boat that was already on the move.” – pg 297.

Additionally, The Fat Years is neatly clustered with characters across the spectrum of society: top ranking official He Dongsheng, former child slave Zhang Dou, politically ambitious student Wei Guo – the novel threads their stories together, reflecting the fabric of society. I often find that the Chinese novelists that I read are adept at painting the backstories of their characters, unafraid to take a break from the narrative to flesh out their protagonists.Chan Koonchung is no exception.

The epilogue, a weighty chunk of the novel, serves as a drawstring to the story’s mixed bag of plot lines. Again, the structure is unlike anything I’ve read before. The novel’s conclusion doesn’t mince its words in its verdict, but it would be specious to assume that the novel writes off contemporary China. The novelist himself still resides there, in his own words “I’m here in Beijing for the people.”

Chan Koonchung, The Fat Years, Black Swan (Great Britain, 2012). £7.99

 

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