From a distance, the wall of rats fleeing down the mountain looks like flowing water. The white noise of their shrieking sounds like rainfall.
Only one human is present to witness, only one old man who remained behind when the other villagers got out, driven away by “a once-in-a-millennium drought” that refuses to abate. It can be nothing but dire news when the local rats hit the road, too.
In “The Years, Months, Days,” the vivid and hallucinatory title piece in a collection of two novella-length fables by the eminent Chinese writer Yan Lianke (“The Explosion Chronicles”), the old man is the Elder. Too weary to decamp with his neighbors when they left the mountains in search of a less brutal place to wait out the famine, he has stayed at home to tend a corn seedling, with only his blind dog for company. Though actually, the Elder talks to the plant, too.
If he cares for the shoot properly — if he can provide it with enough water and nutrients to thrive, if he can shield it from the threatening wind and merciless sun — it will provide seeds for the villagers to plant, should the rains ever come and the people return. Amid the emergency of the present, he commits himself diligently, maybe quixotically, to ensuring the possibility of the future, whatever privation that might require.
“The Elder thought, After I die, they should erect a plaque reading BOUNDLESS BENEFICENCE in front of my grave.” Comically grandiose as the notion is, he’s kind of right.
In this scorched, synesthetic landscape, where his grasp of reality is sometimes tenuous and his sense of time unreliable, sounds and smells come in colors (“a purplish yelp,” “the blue scent of fresh barley”). The oppressive sunshine is heavy enough to weigh with a scale and so substantial that a coin tossed in the air bumps “against one ray after another, producing a bright clinking sound.”
Lianke finds unlikely drama in the slow growth and endurance of the cornstalk. He conjures suspense from the starving, thirsting, sometimes frankly repulsive horror that everyday life has become for the Elder and Blindy, a formerly wild dog whose weeping, well-like eyes have been seared by the sunlight. Their survival demands teamwork and selflessness, and when it becomes apparent that survival is no longer an option, they approach that with a moving devotion, too.
“Marrow,” the book’s ghostly second tale, is similarly concerned with brutal self-sacrifice, though there is a sardonic flavor to its dark ending. Unsettling in its own way, this novella is imbued with a different kind of surreality.
You don’t have to be hypersensitive to object to the story’s very premise. A widow named Fourth Wife You has three daughters and a son, all of them feebleminded. “Her four idiot children had made her infamous throughout the Balou Mountains. No one in the neighboring villages called You Village by its actual name; they all called it Four Idiots Village.”
Fourth Wife You and her husband, Stone You — who drowned himself in a river after their lively toddler son got a fever that left him dull-witted — blame the children’s condition on epilepsy, which runs in Stone You’s family. If you can set that strange aspersion aside, it is an entertaining story, albeit occasionally repellent: The now grown son, Fourth Idiot, is so untethered from notions of sexual propriety that he pursues not only his older sister, Third Daughter, but also various neighboring animals.
Still, there is something tender in this fable about a family whose shot at happiness has turned out so poorly. Stone You, remorseful about leaving his wife with such a burden to handle alone, is her near-constant spectral companion, and while she doesn’t always listen to his advice, at least he is there to give it.
Bitter about his suicide, Fourth Wife You seems a tough and unloving parent; she marries her daughters off to pretty much any man who will take them. Yet she can also be uncommonly brave. So when one of her sons-in-law tells her he has a recurring dream in which bone-marrow soup will cure his pregnant wife’s illness, Fourth Wife You is willing to try it.
“It calls for the bones of a dead person, a relative, and the closer the kin the better,” he says, and soon they are raiding Stone You’s tomb. His bones alone may not be enough, though.
What does a mother do, then, if she discovers the tonic to heal her children’s minds? For Fourth Wife You, as for the Elder, the health of the next generation might hinge on a timely demise.
THE YEARS, MONTHS, DAYS
By Yan Lianke
Translated, from the Chinese, by Carlos Rojas
Black Cat, 192 pp., paperback, $16
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