China: Chan Koonchung: The Fat Years (review)

I have been fascinated by China for several years. I think what really sparked my interest was reading Jung Chang’s amazing family saga Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. I want to learn more about China so I’ve decided to create a reading list about China. I want to read both non-fiction and fiction, both Chinese writers and others. I’m really looking forward to diving into this huge nation and learn more about this fascinating country with such an amazing culture – but also such a devastating history. My fourth choice is The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung which has been published about two weeks ago.

So what would you do if you could remember something happening but you were just about the only one who could? And even if you went to old news papers or on the internet, there wasn’t any information about it?

Well, that’s the situation for several of the characters in this book. Not all though. The main character, Old Chen, is a happy man. He’s happy about his life, the world he lives in, everything. But then he meets a woman he was in love with when they were both young, Little Xi. Little Xi is not happy. She is a former lawyer who very quickly found out that she was not cut out for handling out death penalties for every offense committed. So now she supports herself by various means while her main focus is on discussing political issues on the internet, using ever changing pseudonyms.

When Old Chen meets Little Xi again, he decides to try to woo her and does so by pretending he’s not the same as all the other happy people but is discontent just as Little Xi. Little Xi is frustrated. She spent some time in a mental hospital and when she was released, everybody had changed. Nobody wanted to talk about what happened on June 4th, 1989 or about the Cultural Revolution. It was as if they didn’t remember anymore: Certain collective memories seemed to have been completely swallowed up by a cosmic black hole, never to be heard of again. (Location 1081-82)

Old Chen introduces Little Xi to another old friend of his, Fang Caodi. Fang Caodi is not happy either but unlike Little Xi, he actually knows he’s unhappy. Fang Caodi remembers that there was a month where the country was in great inner turmoil – or more precisely, 28 days. 28 days from the day when the world economy went into a huge crisis and to the day where China’s Golden Age of Ascendancy officially started – but it seems that these 28 days are missing from everyone’s memory.  As well as missing from newspapers, books and more. How can that be?

Fang Caodi suspects that this collective amnesia can be related to the vaccination for the bird flu that everyone got the same spring but he’s not sure. He also has an idea that anyone suffering from asthma is not affected for some reason but he can’t confirm either suspicion initially.

After helping Little Xi remember what happened in those 28 days, Fang Caodi and Little Xi decides to kidnap a government official to force him to tell them why nobody remember any of the bad stuff that has happened in recent Chinese history. But in doing so, they involve Old Chen more than he wished to be.

This novel takes place in a near-future version of China – in some ways, a China that already exists. Some of the issues discussed in the book, have already become reality. I find recent Chinese history fascinating and the idea of a government somehow manipulating the entire population is intriguing – and something you can easily believe could happen in China (and in some ways have happened already, many times). But I don’t think the plot in this novel is entirely convincing. I think the answer to the question ‘how?’, is not persuasive. And I think the author ran out of ideas too because not only doesn’t he explain everything, he has a lot of promising minor characters that could really have been interesting to develop further (Little Xi’s son among others) but they are just introduced and then almost forgotten.

Of course, China is very different from the country I live in and I do know that it’s dangerous to assume that other people think and react like I do – especially when we come from different cultures. But I still have a hard time buying how the plot is developed and that because people fear chaos more than dictatorship, the Chinese government just had to wait for the people to come running scared when things got out of hand in those 28 days, and then the government could step in and impose stability like another Leviathan (I still don’t believe Thomas Hobbes was right about how we humans act if we have no sovereign).

And more important than that – the last 25 % of this book is so boring. In essence, it’s consists almost entirely of one very very long speech or treatise on first economic and then politics. It just go on and on and on: Twenty-five per cent of the balance of every National Bank savings account was to be converted into vouchers for use in China only. One third of these had to be spent within ninety days, and two thirds within six months. Beyond that time limit they would no longer be valid. The Chinese people’s excessive savings were one of the reasons for insufficient domestic demand. Personal savings equalled more than 20 per cent of the nation’s annual GDP, and business savings were more than 30 per cent. (location 41114-20). This was just a short example. It just continues like this for page after page. Suddenly, the book stopped being fiction and became non-fiction. And I didn’t enjoy the novel after that.

In the afterword, the translator states that this lengthy monologue is how the president addresses the people and he claims that Most liberal ethnic-Chinese scholars living in China and abroad regard the last section of the work as very dramatic and the most important part of the book. (location 4962-68). The key word here is scholar. Since when do you write novels to please scholars? Isn’t papers, essays, non fiction books more suited if you want to address scholars? In my opinion, at least, this is a pure defense for a very in-appropriate way to end a story.

One top of that, there was also a serious error at this point. The author forgets that one of his characters is tied up and can’t move and then let him walk freely to the bathroom – only to remember that he’s tied up a few pages later and then makes a point of his captors not having any intentions of unleashing him … Serious editing needed there!

I do believe there’s a lot of interesting discussion points in this book. Old Chen at one point ponders how much freedom the Chinese people have – if it’s maybe 90 or 95 per cent. He compares it with the West and thinks it’s a little less than in the West but as he correctly points out, Western nations also have restrictions on freedom of speech and action (his examples are how Germany restricts neo-Nazi organizations and how some states in the United States deny homosexuals the freedom to mary). And I think he has a good point here. However, there’s a difference between having freedom where you actually know that some things are not allowed and having a freedom where you’re not aware that things are being kept from you. The Chinese government is still restricting it’s citizens (just recently, my friend Jun Feng was in China and he was so happy that he had a small program that allowed him to access Facebook while he was there (Facebook of course being un-available in China)). And therefore, I don’t think the points has that much value – if you don’t know your freedom is being restricted, then you are less free than if you do know. At least, that’s what I think.

For the great majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; they have never seen the photographs and news repots about it, and even fewer have had their family or teachers ever explain it to them. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it. In theory, after a period of time has elapsed, an entire year can indeed disappear from history – because no one says anything about it.

It’s is argued that the young Chinese have never heard of the massacre on Tiananmen Square in 1989 and that it has hardly been mentioned in the official discourse since then and that people avoid talking about it because they don’t want to get in trouble. First of, if these things are true, it just adds to my argument that the Chinese people are less free because people in the West would not let the official discourse just brush over something like this. Secondly, I don’t think that people who have experienced what happened back then, would just forget it. I still remember vividly the images of the tank driving into and over that young man. Of course, you can’t remember if if you have never known it. But if it is true that it has been forgotten just by being not spoken about, I find that truly scary.

I was at times unsure whether the author did in fact support the Communist Party or not – or at least very unsure about what his intentions were with this book. But he does come out and has a character state that since June 1989, /…/ the Chinese Communist Party no longer has any ideals. As a Party-state regime with a total monopoly of power in China, the Communist Party rules only to preserve its own power. ((location 4598-4600). It is also stated in the afterword that China isn’t really a fascist state anymore because it hasn’t an ideology or a great leader anymore and that The Party leaders have no dream of utopia, only a dream of amassing more wealth and power for themselves and their dependents, while suppressing all malcontents in the name of national stability. (location 4950-52)

As it can be seen, this novel inspires a lot of thought. I love when fiction does that. But fiction can’t be judged solely on the ideas and thoughts it gives us – it has to be judged on it’s own merits as a novel. And on that, I think this novel fails. There are too many characters introduced where one think they will play an important role in the plot later – but they don’t. The plot itself is not completely satisfying and then the author lets one character go on a far too long speech towards the end that accomplishes nothing else but make you forget the merits of the first 75 per cent of the book, as well as start skimming to have it over with. This novel could have been so much – unfortunately, it failed to even be a novel for too many pages.

But between a good hell and a counterfeit paradise, which one will people choose? No matter what you might say, many people will believe that a counterfeit paradise is better than a good hell. They know perfectly well it’s a counterfeit paradise, but they don’t dare expose it. As time goes by, they will even forget that it is a fake paradise. They start arguing in defense of this fake paradise, asserting that it is actually the only paradise. But there’s always a small number of people, even if they are only an extremely small minority, who will choose the good hell no matter how painful it is, because in the good hell at least everyone is fully aware that they are living in hell. (Location 2106-11)

  • Title: The Fat Years
  • Author: Chan Koonchung
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Year: 2012
  • Pages: e-book
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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