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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Explosion Chronicles

Yan Lianke

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To purchase The Explosion Chronicles

Title: The Explosion Chronicles
Author: Yan Lianke
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 463 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Explosion Chronicles - US
The Explosion Chronicles - UK
The Explosion Chronicles - Canada
Les chroniques de Zhalie - France
  • Chinese title: 炸裂志
  • Translated by Carlos Rojas

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Our Assessment:

B : quite clever and fun, but uneven

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 15/10/2016 .
Financial Times . 31/3/2017 Catherine Taylor
The Guardian . 30/3/2017 Alfred Hickling
The NY Rev. of Books . 22/6/2017 Ian Johnson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/11/2016 Jiayang Fan
Sunday Times . 12/3/2017 David Mills
TLS . 21/4/2017 Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Wall St. Journal . 26/10/2016 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "The elements of fairy-tale fantasy scattered across The Explosion Chronicles help to sweeten a tough-minded satire. (...) The reader slips into a literary China of poetry and mystery that flourished long before the boom -- and will certainly outlive it" - The Economist

  • "The resulting novel is a hyper-real tour de force, a blistering condemnation of political corruption and excess masquerading as absurdist saga. (... (H)e has written a novel which extends beyond China’s moral contradictions to the ethical ambivalence of our times." - Catherine Taylor, Financial Times

  • "The translation, by Yan’s regular English collaborator Carlos Rojas, is a model of clarity with a dry, ironic tone that just about matches the extraordinary sequence of events." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "(T)his is a work heavy on structure, scope, and symbolism. Unfortunately, it is also light on character development and humor (except the zaniest, slapstick, brutalist form). (...) This may be parody, but parodies work best when short, and this one is long. It is enjoyable and the critiques of society are spot-on, but at times one feels that the author is so keen to show every aspect of China’s moral abyss that he cannot resist piling it on, like a carnival showman with one more freak show to exhibit." - Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books

  • "As with Yan’s previous novels, the formal inventiveness of The Explosion Chronicles is impressive and its fictional universe vividly drawn. But one cannot help wishing it were less an operatic allegory of political principles and more a story, animated by fallible protagonists who are not entirely devoid of moral ambivalence." - Jiayang Fan, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is an epic tale of miracles, madness, greed and corruption set against the backdrop of runaway urbanization. Like other recent novels by Yan, it is steeped in allegorical meanings, as well as the sorts of subversive twists on official orthodoxies that ensure it cannot be published on the Chinese mainland" - Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Times Literary Suppelement

  • "This darkly absurd history trucks freely with the fantastic -- the city’s airport is built in less than a week -- but many of the more brazen events are taken straight from the news. (...) Mr. Yan’s burlesque of a nation driven insane by money is equally a satire of some of the excesses of the Chinese Revolution." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Explosion Chronicles is a novel of the most recent "historical cycle" in China -- the rapid, seemingly almost unfettered growth of the Chinese economy. The locale of the appropriately-named Explosion serves as the example:

     After the founding of new China in 1949, the history of Explosion Village replicated in miniature the pain and prosperity undergone by the nation itself.
       A village through Maoist times, Explosion undergoes an incredible transformation in the new era, expanding into the present-day megalopolis and economic powerhouse it is now presented as.
       The novel opens with a chapter of 'Prefatory Material', in which the author offers a (fictional) explanation of how he came to be involved with 'The Explosion Chronicles', an historical record of the place. He presents himself as having been hired by the city to rewrite the original 'The Explosion Chronicles' they had commissioned (and published in 2010):
(I)n order to help The Explosion Chronicles circulate more widely, the municipal government decided to hire a famous local author to undertake a thorough rewrite, to make it an outstanding literary achievement. The objective was to document Explosion's transformation from a village into a town, from town into a city, and from a city into a provincial-level megalopolis, while also celebrating Explosion's heroes, personalities, and citizens.
       What we then have is what 'Yan Lianke' made of Explosion's recent history -- and we're warned already at the outset that, unsurprisingly, the locals don't approve what he made of their town-story: they "refused to recognize this fantastic and absurd text, which incited an unprecedented antihistorical movement" -- and they banished the author from his hometown. ('Yan Lianke' reports that he was, however, well-remunerated for his trouble: "I'll never again need to worry about money -- whether it be to purchase a house or a luxury car, or even for reputation and social status".)
       You can see why the locals might be displeased: the (hi)story 'Yan Lianke' presents is one of a town built up on theft, bribery, and prostitution. Yes, there's a lot of hard work involved -- the locals are eager beavers -- but it's all directed only at becoming bigger (and wealthier), at all costs. And the costs are fairly high.
       The main characters are the sons of Kong Dongde -- especially second (of four) son, Kong Mingliang, who comes to govern Explosion in its various incarnations -- as well as Zhu Ying, the daughter of one of the formerly powerfully families in town, who marries Kong Mingliang.
       At the start of this new, post-Maoist era, Kong Dongde -- recently released from a labor camp -- instructs his sons to each go off in a different direction: "and when you find something you should pick it up -- and whatever it is, it will determine your future life-course". The kids aren't really convinced -- "they assumed their father had gone mad" -- but when he keeps insisting they finally decide to humor him. Each of them does find something that determines their destiny -- including Mingliang, who essentially finds a blank slate -- though at least one of them gets it slightly wrong, and only much later finds the object that was to determine his, an almanac that has recorded everything that happens, past and future (but which isn't in entirely pristine condition when he finally does get his hands on it, meaning pages and passages are obscured or hard to read).
       The ambitious Kong Mingliang sees opportunity where others don't. Instead of spending his time farming or engaging in small-scale village trade he makes the beginnings of his fortune by theft: noticing that the passing trains go very slowly as they chug up a nearby mountain, he hops aboard and steals from their cargo -- coal, to begin with. But he's also happy to share the secrets of his success, and soon much of the town is involved in this 'trade'.
       Kong Mingliang becomes the community leader -- the head of the local government, in its various forms as it evolves. He remains largely unchallenged, except early on, when he faces an election against Zhu Ying, the other local who quickly made good, or at least earned a lot of money, having gone to the big city and prostituted herself. Returning to Explosion, she figures her chances to be elected village chief are good; she knows what moves the locals:
     "They aren't going to vote for me, they're going to vote for money. Right now, I've got a lot of money."
       Mingliang makes the necessary deal with the devil to ensure that he becomes village chief: he finally agrees to marry her. He is announced as the winer of the election, even though it is a fraud; it's typical for how things go in this chronicle that even Mingliang's great success later has as its foundation a lie.
       Yan has good fun in chronicling the transformations of the village, from a tiny agricultural town where the houses all have thatched roofs to a megalopolis of skyscrapers with the world's largest airport. Among the inspired parts are the large-scale crooked schemes they come up with to cash in, like the recycling of newspaper and magazine stories from various parts of China, that would be exported to other parts -- a cut-and-paste job even the kids could do.
       Fairly quickly:
everyone in Explosion stopped farming, though no one was left idle. The various industries and factories made this new town bustle like a pot of boiling water.
       Mingliang obsessively strives only to get Explosion to the next level -- to be designated an ever-more significant entity, all the way up to the final goal of "provincial-level metropolis on the same level as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and even Beijing itself" (and there are hints of even higher aspirations, such as, eventually, independent nationhood). Because he is so busy, Mingliang is a hard man to find, even for his family -- much more an absence than a present figure.
       The other brothers struggle a bit longer, as soldier or teacher, for example, but eventually also gain more significant positions. Kong Mingyao, who long plodded along uninspiringly in the army, comes into his own as a rescuer of wayward souls and eventually brings a militarist element to Explosion. Outraged by the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (1999) and then the 2001 collision of an American Navy spy plane with a Chinese jet, he becomes virulently nationalist -- putting on quite a display for some American investors in Explosion, albeit without the desired results (they're impressed rather than scared off) -- and, with an army of loyalists behind him, becomes a much more important (and somewhat threatening) figure in Explosion. Mingliang even has to turn to Mingyao in order to realize the most grandiose projects necessary to get Explosion to the next level; not a problem for Mingyao, even as some of what he requires to get the job done should raise some eyebrows ("you need to find me five thousand severed legs and ten thousand severed fingers" -- the human cost of these rapid-fire construction projects).
       Beyond the simple exaggerations of rapid urbanization, there are elements of the fantastical in The Explosion Chronicles. As Yan explains in an afterword, his approach is not one of realism but of mythorealism, the: "product of contemporary China's incomprehensible absurdity". He suggests the only way of conveying and representing it is through this mythorealism, and it is a fairly effective approach.
       It's all a fairly successful -- and often entertaining -- mix of the plausible, the wildly exaggerated, and the fantastical (the latter carefully dosed, but nicely imagined when it is utilized). Still, the novel sputters frequently, overwhelmed by its -- and its characters' -- ambitions, not able to follow through very far with many of the story-lines and ideas. There are stretches where Yan barrels ahead very effectively, especially when he focuses on an individual characters' progress, but there's a lot crammed in here, and some of it is stuffed in rather carelessly.
       The Explosion Chronicles is an enjoyable, broad (if somewhat haphazard) take on China's breakneck modernization. It is (perhaps appropriately) somewhat messy, but there's more than enough to it to sustain interest over its nearly five hundred pages.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 October 2016

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The Explosion Chronicles: Reviews: Yan Lianke: Other books by Yan Lianke under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Yan Lianke (閻連科) was born in 1958, and he has won several major Chinese literary prizes.

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