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Yan Lianke: 日熄 (The Day the Sun Died)

This novel is set in Yan Lianke’s own village, Gaotian; indeed Yan Lianke and his family appear as characters in the book. However, the book is narrated by the fourteen-year old Li Niannian. His parents run a shop that sells items used in funeral rituals, though they do not do as well as they might do, given that burial is strictly forbidden and only cremation is allowed. Li Niannian frequently mentions Yan Lianke, not least because he is the only famous person who lives in the village and because he lives next door to Li Niannian and his family. Yan Lianke’s books are also mentioned but with slight variations on their real titles, e.g. Lenin’s Kisses becomes Kissing Lenin. Li Niannian is an enthusiastic reader of Yan Lianke’s books; indeed, it seems that his books are the only works of fiction obtainable for the boy and he has read them all. However, later on, in an imaginary conversation with Yan Lianke, he says But other than myself, no one in the village or the town actually likes your books. Apart from myself, no one is even able to read one of your books from beginning to end. People all ask what your books are about.

Li Niannian is of the view that the village should be a town as because it has streets and a market, and a town government, bank, post office, and police station. He is also convinced it is the centre of the world as it is located in the centre of China, which is, of course, the centre of the world. He gets this idea from Yan Lianke, who mentioned it in one of his books. However, recently, Yan Lianke’s inspiration has dried up and he has not written anything for years: he effectively died as an author.

The story is told over twenty-four hours and we are given time segments for each chapter. Inevitably, there is a lot of back story. The main issue is that burials were banned and everyone had to be cremated. However, many people secretly buried their family members in their gardens or fields, as this was the traditional way of doing it. If a body was found to have been buried and not cremated, it would be dug up and burned and the family would be fined. Before he was married, Tianbao, Li Niannian’s father, made money by reporting those who had buried a family member, for which he was generously paid. He wanted to save up to build a tiled house for his family, as they only lived in a lowly thatched roof house.

To get his money, Tianbao had to report to the director of the crematorium, who paid him each time. The director had a daughter, Xiaomin, and it was she who made a suggestion to Tianbao. I can help you build a new three-room house. All you need to do is to marry me, and in lieu of a dowry, I will help your family build a new house. After we marry, we can open a funerary shop in the middle of Town Street. We can sell wreaths and burial shrouds, as well as paper ornaments and funerary objects to be buried with the deceased. Tianbao agreed, the couple were married and they opened their shop.

The key issue of this story, however, is dreamwalking. Dreamwalking, which is the literal Chinese translation of what we called sleepwalking, seems to have seized hold of Gaotian. A large number of people are doing it during this twenty-four hour period. We and they do not know why. In many cases, they do not know that they are dreamwalking. What seems to happen is that if they are doing something or are eager to do something, they do it and it alone, while dreamwalking. A man, for example, may be out walking and walks straight into the canal without realising it. Xiaomin is making funerary decorations from paper and carries on obsessively doing it. A man is walking around naked at home and continues to do so outside.

However, it also seems to have the effect of releasing inhibitions. People confess to things they would not normally have confessed to. Tianbao, for example, admits that it was he who betrayed those who had buried their loved ones instead of cremating them. A woman admits that she poisoned her handicapped husband, as she was tired of looking after him. Others take to thieving from unguarded shops. One man, who has a hairdressing salon, smashes up the shop of a rival. Inevitably, those are who are not dreamwalking also take to theft.

Two of our main characters – Tianbao and Yan Lianke – start to get involved. Tianbao makes tea for everyone and, by drinking it, they stay awake. Yan Lianke decides that he is going to write a novel about dreamwalking though it seems that he might be dreamwalking when he says this and, when he awakes, he says I’m not going to write anymore. I’m not going to write another word as long as I live.

Things get steadily worse. The world was in tumult, and had been turned upside down on this night of the great somnambulism. Those who were not dreamwalking took advantage of the general somnambulism to make trouble, and there were more people pretending to dreamwalk than there were actual dreamwalkers. Everyone was using the general somnambulism as a pretext to rob and steal.

This really is a clever novel, though it is easy to see why it has never been published in mainland China. It shows that the Chinese (and, presumably, by extension, everyone else) will, when constraints are removed (i.e. fear of punishment, moral imperatives) tend to behave badly, with the possible exception of the occasional reformed sinner, like Tianbao. Few people come out of this story well, except for Tianbao and his son and then it was the son who was narrating the story. Yan Lianke has showed us that human nature does not, as the Chinese communists (and many others) might maintain, tend to the saintly and towards doing good but, rather, to greed, selfishness and violence. He probably has a point.

Publishing history

First published by Rye Field Publishing House in 2015
First English translation by Chatto & Windus in 2018