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  • The Day the Sun Died by Yan Lianke
  • Graham Oliver (bio)
Yan Lianke, tr. Carlos Rojas. The Day the Sun Died. Grove Press.

In the Chinese village of Gaotian, on a night during the wheat harvest, the villagers rise from their sleep as dreamwalkers. This single night is the subject of Yan Lianke's latest novel to be translated into English, The Day the Sun Died. The story is narrated by self-proclaimed idiot Li Niannian, the son of the funerary store owners, whose family seems to be one of the few una√ected by the somnambulism plague. Characters can't tell who is dreamwalking and who is awake, and sometimes readers can't tell either. Dreamwalking lowers inhibitions, and people begin acting out their desires, both conscious and unconscious. For many this means simply spending the night harvesting wheat in case it rains the next day or eating extravagant meals, but others turn to darker acts. The night is filled with theft, gluttony, obsession, and even rape and murder.

Li's family at first considers the night an opportunity: the dreamwalking has already led to numerous deaths, meaning a surge of families in need of their services. But as the novel progresses, the narrator's father, whom Li describes as "a good man" who "usually didn't hit anyone," sees a shift in attitude, and this opportunism gives way to a heavy sense of moral obligation which suggests that in fact the man may indeed have something to atone for. Li's family tries to prevent bad things from happening, to wake up the dreamwalkers, and to end the night of terror.

The Day the Sun Died's magical realism premise is one of many present in Yan's catalog of work. Here it's somnambulism; in other novels it's people speaking a village's advancement into existence or a political leader so persuasive he could convince nature and the weather to act on his behalf. The novel reads like the start of a modern myth. Repetitive and rhythmic dialogue throughout renders conversations theatrical and grandiose. The narration is one long string of metaphors and similes, many of which fit the world of the story without making much logical sense. Coffee brewing has a red scent, a door closing makes a pitch-black sound, and a penis is likened to a dead bird. The narrator implores the fictional Yan Lianke to chronicle the night's events, asking the gods and saints to inspire such a chronicling, hoping to elevate the honorable actions of his family.

Yan's mythmaking also serves as a screen for his criticism of China. While the author is not officially banned from publishing, nor is he prevented from traveling, his books are nearly unavailable in China. This novel offers indirect criticism, as the government controls reporting and messaging around the fantastic [End Page 178] events, with radio propaganda blaming the weather and urging order. Yan also explores the devastating communal effects of a short-lived cremation-only policy that turns neighbors into informers and the crematorium owner into a villain. The narration never suggests the policy is wrong, but when it's suddenly reversed with no fanfare, there's no way to read it without thinking about all the mistrust, anger, and paranoia the policy caused with no real gains.

Yan Lianke himself is a character in the story, as in many of his novels. In The Day the Sun Died, he lives on the edge of the village, a near-hermit and minor celebrity whose fortunes both financially and as a writer are on a downturn. In the real world, when Yan visits the village his family is from, he's treated as a massive star, even though his work is practically banned from the public. Many of the funniest lines in the book are about this fictional Yan. We're told that what's happening is so extraordinary "not even Yan Lianke's novel contained a scene like this." Yan also cheekily writes that "his novels are like messy graves [. . .] the best thing you could say is that his novels are about a village." Li seems to be the only...


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pp. 178-179
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