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In the past five or six years, drafts of Yan Lianke’s novels have tended to circulate among publishers, before eventually being rejected. The fact that his latest novel Zha Lie Zhi (literally, Chronicles of Explosion and Split) has been published, he feels, is largely down to good luck.

Yan, at the age of 55, has been called China’s most controversial writer – several of his books are banned in the mainland, including Serve the People!, a story about an affair between a soldier and the wife of a general during the Cultural Revolution, and Dream of Ding Village, a story about rural populations infected by HIV.

In 2008, he published the novel Ballad, Hymn, Ode, telling the story of a college professor sent to an asylum after finding out about his wife’s affair, who ends up fleeing to his countryside hometown. Thanks to its unsavory portrayal of the dark side of the Chinese intellectual circle, the work provoked much debate.

“Writers mustn’t self-censor, but to publish you have to compromise,” said Yan. He admits that in order to secure the release of his new book, he had to make various concessions. Over the course of thirty years of writing, Yan has been trying to learn to fit into China’s highly politicized literary establishment, his sizeable talent and tendency to be outspoken often sabotaging these efforts – Yan, unsurprisingly, is no stranger to the censor’s red pen.

Chronicles of Explosion and Split, Yan’s latest novel, is a story of a village (called “Explosion and Split”) that mushrooms into a massive metropolis over the course of thirty years. Yan calls it a further exploration of “mythical realism,” a term he himself coined to describe his writing. The narrative is framed as a set of village chronicles, a style that evokes the strong Chinese tradition of local record-keeping.

Literary critic Chen Xiaoming called the storytelling in Chronicles “astonishing,” while popular post-80s generation writer Jiang Fangzhou commented that “while dealing with the complexity and queerness of the reality of contemporary China, the novel harnesses them easily, rather than responding to them passively.”

But Yan himself remains dubious about the value of his own works. “How could it be possible for a writer to examine three decades of anation and the psychology of its people in one book?” he asks, sitting in a café on Beijing’s West Third Ring Road.

Explosion and Split

Yan believes that content and narrative framework are equally important in his writing, and accordingly, the form of a Yan novel often alludes heavily to evocative Chinese cultural reference points. In Ballad, Hymn, Ode, Yan borrowed the table of contents from the The Book of Odes, the earliest collection of Chinese poems, to string the series of stories together. This time, he thought it more appropriate to elucidate change using village chronicles.