Randomly picked up Yu Hua's newest novel 'The Seventh Day' in English. 余华的《第七天》Translated by Allan H. Barr, this cover was decent enough. I last read his socio-political critique 'China in Ten Words'. It was heavy but enjoyable. I expected no less of this although the title indicated a slightly lighter read.
This new book takes the title from the Chinese (or Taoist/Buddhist) funeral customs where after someone dies, the first seven days after that are the most important in all rites. This is usually the time frame for a wake before the cremation or burial. The book speaks about themes of poverty, unfairness, government cover-ups and corruption in China's new market economy. (Reviews here, here, here and here.)
The book is mainly set in the netherworld and the realm of exploring one's stream of consciousness after death. Of course there're deeper socio-political themes. Not sure if this book would be more poignant in its original Chinese. For many reasons, I'm almost certain that I would enjoy reading this in English rather than Chinese. I didn't want to deal with the literary poetry of the words and phrases in its original language. That might be too overwhelming for my brains.
Protagonist 41-year-old Yang Fei, an impoverished tutor, is dead. The story traced his personal journey to find out why and how he has died, and in doing so, he finds courage to revisit his past and deals with it- an ex-wife Li Qing, and his loving father Yang Jinbiao who found him and raised him, along with his constant childhood caregivers Li Yuezhen and her husband Hao Qiangsheng, people who are kin more than his birth parents are.
Through Yang Fei's journey and the personal stories of the other dead people he met, we see the standard appearance of corrupt government officials in all ways. Of Beijing's 'mouse tribe' (所谓北京鼠族) of migrant workers living in cramped conditions in civil defense shelters deep underground. There're the property developers knocking down acquired buildings without care for human lives; state authorities covering up the actual number of deaths in a fire at the shopping mall; a hospital covering up a never-confirmed scandal of abandoning ill babies from families who couldn't afford medical fees; a man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and executed; a young girl who committed suicide seemingly over a fake iPhone 4 gifted by her boyfriend; a boyfriend selling a kidney to raise money for his girlfriend's funeral costs, et cetera. All too real and too familiar social misery and ills.
What a brilliant critique. However, the author was insistent on putting across the message that in the bleakness and oppression, there's light in the existence of filial piety, of love and kinship among the downtrodden. "Here, everyone finds equality in death, in The Land of the Unburied."
I became aware that all around me was laughter and good cheer, as people tucked into their meals and exchanged toasts, at the same time gleefully mocking those defective food items so pervasive in the departed world: tainted rice, tainted milk formula, tainted buns, fake eggs, leather milk, plaster noodles, chemical hot pot, fecal tofu, ersatz chili powder, recycled cooking oil.
Amid hoots of laughter, they sang the praises of the dishes here, and I heard words such as "fresh", "delicious," and "healthy" being bandied about.
"There are only two places we know where food is safe," someone said.
"Which two places?"
"Here is one."
"What about the other?"
"The state banquets over there."
"Well said," someone chuckled. "We're enjoying the same treatment as those top leaders."