Title: The Explosion Chronicles
Author: Yan Lianke
Genre: Fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, magical realism, mythorealism
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Book Depository.
My rating: ★★☆☆☆
Summary: The village of Explosion was first founded by refugees fleeing a seismic volcanic eruption, hence the name “Explosion”. In the post-Mao era, it rapidly grows from a small rural community to a massive metropolis. Three of Explosion’s major families are behind this successful growth: the four Kong brothers, the daughter of the former village chief, and Cheng Quing, a former secretary turned politician and businesswoman. Through ambition, desire, and betrayal, these families transform their hometown into an urban superpower.
“The entirety of Explosion’s past consisted of reality, history, and people’s memories. On account of this tension between history and reality, Explosion’s old streets and the new city became divided into two distinct worlds.”
– The Explosion Chronicles, Yan Lianke
I genuinely wanted to like this book. I haven’t read anything by this author before, or any Chinese literature in general, so I didn’t have all that many expectations as to how this would be. My only reason for picking it up in the first place was because it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and also because the summary sounded interesting.
If I were to mention one expectation to this book I guess it would be to come out of it having learned something about China’s history. The reality is that it was more or less the other way around: I probably should have had more knowledge more about China’s history before I sat down to read this. So you have an insignificant village that turns unnaturally fast into a huge city, added a bunch of eccentric characters who don’t seem to be able handle their personal drama particularly well, plus quite a bit of magical realism on top. That’s basically all I got out of this.
There’s an afterword by Yan Lianke, the author, in which he explains his use of “mythorealism”. This is a type of literature that, according to Lianke, best captures the absurdity and disorder of contemporary China. I think this sounds very interesting in itself, and the afterword was to a certain extent enlightening, but honestly many of the references and the allegories, which at times seemed really ridiculous and random, went right over my head.
Of course, me missing out on a bunch of things in this novel could have a lot to do with the fact that I had a hard time concentrating on it. It is partly written like a chronicle, and even though it obviously said so in the title I’m not sure I quite expected this factual, detached way of writing. I actually liked it in the beginning, because it started out pretty straightforward and it was easy to keep up with, but the book gradually lost me as the mythorealism emerged in combination with this particular writing style. There were just limits to how engaging I found it. The book also gets rather repetitive in its narration, we go back and forth between certain characters and their issues a lot without much progress, the characters in themselves are one-dimensional and not very interesting once you get past the drama (which also gets repetitive), and the dialogue is unusual; it’s filled with line breaks and doesn’t read naturally to me. I also had a hard time figuring out the reasons behind some of the characters’ actions; it didn’t seem like there always were any reasons or motivations at all. But then again, this could all have had a deeper meaning that I just wasn’t aware of.
Overall though, this was an okay read. It’s not badly written, it’s just really unusual, but it’s something a reader can get used to. I also like the fact that the criticisms of a society focused on wealth and material successes aren’t subtle at all, which in this case naturally implies modern China. But like I said, I wish I knew more about China’s history to actually appreciate and make more sense of the story itself and the whole point of the mythorealism device. Although this didn’t work for me, I think it’s worth a try if you’re into magical realism. This book definitely has a whole different take on it and you’ll soon find out if it appeals to you or not.