Yan Lianke is widely celebrated as one of China’s greatest novelists. His latest book, The Explosion Chronicles, satirizes today’s China by offering a fictional history of a village transformed overnight into a megalopolis. Carlos Rojas is his translator.
Best books...chosen by Yan Lianke
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (Signet, $8). Cervantes was the first author to elevate satire to a position between humor and eulogy. By presenting his protagonist as a hybrid of knight and anti-knight, he established a tone that combines satire and anti-satire, making the novel a fountainhead of all subsequent satirical literature.
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (Vintage, $16). Without a doubt, it is in this 1842 novel that Nikolai Gogol inaugurated his exaggerated style. All of his exaggerations begin and end with real life, which gives his literature its realistic base and its critical force.
Animal Farm by George Orwell (Signet, $10). Many people don’t particularly like Orwell’s 1984 yet feel they have no choice but to read it. Conversely, many people like Animal Farm yet end up discussing 1984 more. I share these biases, which is why the satirical influence of Animal Farm on my work is subtler and the influence of 1984 more obvious.
Call to Arms by Lu Xun (Simon & Schuster, $12 as an e-book). Though Lu is less well known to the rest of the world, he is considered one of Asia’s greatest authors. Some of the stories in this 1922 collection provided literature with a unique form of satire grounded in blood and agony. They functioned, at the same time, as swan songs for that distinctive satirical form.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, $18). If you were to ask me which work generates for me the greatest frisson of danger and pleasure—the sense of riding a swing high in the air—it would be Heller’s 1961 novel about World War II as experienced by a squadron of U.S. airmen. The feeling I describe derives from the work’s passionate indictment of humanity’s pretenses to justice and nobility.
Captain Pantoja and the Special Service by Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18). When we discuss the humor and power of satire, we typically focus on a work’s story and characters. It is primarily at a structural level, however, that Vargas Llosa’s novel about a stuffy captain on a mission in the hinterlands of Peru has an astonishingly chaotic beauty. Its rhythmic narration creates the work’s ironic, satirical tone.