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The Explosion Chronicles interview

The Explosion Chronicles interview

Yan Lianke explains how The Explosion Chronicles can help readers understand the ways that China is represented through literature, and translator Carlos Rojas discusses the enjoyable challenge of translating the book’s humour.

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2017 longlist interviews.  

Yan Lianke, author of The Explosion Chronicles

What has it been like to be longlisted?   

Since learning that my work was longlisted, I have enjoyed a sense of happy peacefulness. The Man Booker International Prize is, of course, a very prestigious prize, and each time my work is nominated for some recognition, I always feel this is but a form of timely assistance to assist me in my larger writing project. What I am calling a sense of peacefulness, accordingly, is simply a result of the fact that, given my age and experience, I have now reached a point where I am able to take new developments in my stride.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel The Explosion Chronicles?

Asking an author to introduce his own work is like asking a thief to write out his confessions. But if I really must say something about my novel, I would say The Explosion Chronicles uses a method I call ‘mythorealistic composition’ to create a familiar yet at the same time deeply unfamiliar ‘alternate China’ that is distinct from all other nations in the world; an ‘alternate era’ that is distinct from all of China’s other dynasties and historical eras; and an ‘alternate Chinese people’ that is different from all other existing peoples. At present, this focus on an ‘alternate China,’ an ‘alternate era,’ and an ‘alternate Chinese people’ is the most ‘Chinese’ literary characteristic of my work, and if readers are curious about contemporary Asia and Asian literature, they may find that The Explosion Chronicles can help them better understand not only Chinese literature, but also the ways that China and the Chinese people are represented through literature.  

Your work has been described as both ‘a parody of communist rule in China’ and also, ‘a devastating critique of capitalist excess, power, greed and self-destruction.’ Which of those would you say is the most accurate description – or are they both right?

Actually, I did not use my work to present a parody of ‘communist rule in China,’ and I would even venture to say that my work is not interested in politics or political parties at all. Instead, I am fascinated by life and reality, and attempt for my literature to probe more deeply into the reality hidden within life itself. To read my work as focusing on politics is, therefore, a misunderstanding, and I view this sort of assessment as but a form of hollow praise. Actually, I am interested in life itself, and the sorts of predicaments that people encounter in real life. Not only does The Explosion Chronicles not present a parody of the Chinese political system, neither does it offer a critique of capitalism. Instead, in the work I merely strive to use what I view as a sincere writing style to present what I am calling an ‘alternate China,’ an ‘alternate era,’ and an ‘alternate Chinese people.’      


Carlos Rojas, translator of The Explosion Chronicles

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

Yan Lianke and I are both honoured and humbled to have been longlisted two years in a row. To tell the truth, being longlisted again this year has given me a sense of untimeliness. On one hand, it seems like just yesterday that I was answering these same questions for Yan Lianke’s The Four Books. On the other hand, at this point even The Explosion Chronicles itself seems like something from a long time ago. Since then, I have translated two of Yan’s best-known novellas (which will be published later this year in a volume titled The Years, Months, Days) and have also translated half of his most recent novel (which won Hong Kong’s prestigious Dream of the Red Chamber Literary Award last year, and will be published in English next year under the title The Day the Sun Died).

What did you like most about translating The Explosion Chronicles?  

The Explosion Chronicles is a very fun novel. Unlike The Four Books, which has moments of levity but in general is a very dark work, The Explosion Chronicles is instead a fairly light-hearted work albeit with occasional moments of darkness.  It was an enjoyable challenge to try to capture the work’s humour and irony in the English translation.  

What were the main challenges of translating Lianke’s latest work, and how did they compare to Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books?

Each of Yan Lianke’s novels adopts a different narrative voice and compositional structure. Lenin’s Kisses, for instance, explicitly thematises local Henan dialect, while The Four Books uses a combination of Biblical language and Maoist discourse. The Explosion Chronicles, meanwhile, borrows from the language and narrative conventions of China’s traditional dynastic histories and its local gazeteers, while also drawing on the political discourse from the post-Mao era. At the level of compositional structure, meanwhile, both Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books deploy a radically non-linear narrative structure, while the compositional structure of The Explosion Chronicles is, for the most part, more linear in nature. In fact, the compositional structure of the latter novel is almost radically linear—in that it seeks to capture the sort of breathless enthusiasm with which China, in the post-Mao period, has sought to catapult itself into the future.