The Day the Sun Died cover[Grove Press; 2018]

Tr. from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas

There are three sorts of horror afoot in Yan Lianke’s novel, The Day The Sun Died. There is the explicit horror of the premise: Niannian is an adolescent living in Gaotian, a village in modern-day central China. His parents run the New World funerary shop, which makes floral and paper arrangements for memorial services. His uncle runs the town’s crematorium. The novel focuses on the events of one night in late-August, when Gaotian’s inhabitants sleepwalk (or “dreamwalk,” as is the literal translation from Chinese), to violent and disastrous results. Townspeople live out their darkest desires, from theft and marital infidelity to rape, suicide, and murder. To make things far worse, this night seems particularly interminable, since the sun, defying all logical explanation, seems to have died or disappeared. So, this first level of horror delivers the progression of events, from curious and surreal to gory and barbaric, that one might expect from a zombie film following an outbreak from initial contagion to total annihilation.

But underneath this cutaneous horror is a second layer, the horror of the uncanny, and it is here that Yan’s talents as a dystopian prophet are most evident. Long before the night in question, things in Gaotian were far from normal. Given the livelihoods of Niannian’s parents and uncles, it would be fair to say that his family relies on death for its sustenance. But we eventually learn that his family also profits from death; some time ago, the government banned interments, ensuring a steady flow of clients at the uncle’s crematorium. Despite his interdiction, many families choose to bury their deceased loved ones in the countryside, illegally and without professional help. Niannian’s father and uncle have, somewhere along the way, worked out an arrangement. The father will inform on families that bury their dead, and the uncle and father will share in the fee that the government pays to informers. The uncle will eventually cremate the clandestinely buried bodies, and the father will use explosives to destroy the despoiled graves. This macabre state of affairs pales in comparison to the key atrocity of the book. Niannian makes first passing references to, and then exhaustive descriptions of, “corpse oil,” a byproduct of the cremation process. This substance supposedly has great value, and the uncle, in a self-congratulatory moment of magnanimity, entrusts Niannian’s father with the resale of the oil. But Niannian’s father does not sell the oil; rather he stockpiles it, hundreds of barrels of it, in an underground cave. Without revealing too much, one can simply butcher Chekhov by observing that, if you read a story that mentions corpse oil, you can be pretty sure that it will be used, sooner or later.

Let there be no mistake: this is disgusting stuff, tying together revulsion of cannibalism, images of past genocides and futuristic dystopias, and the darkness of human avarice. It is also “off” in the sense of not-quite-right: my admittedly limited research into contemporary, professional cremation procedures has turned up no mention of corpse oil or other such byproducts. The fat and flesh and organs of the human body are vaporized, and all that remain are the bones, coffin fragments, and artificial devices — prosthetics, dental fillings, pacemakers, and the like. A seemingly unrelated substance called “corpse oil” seems to exist in Thai occultism, but doesn’t appear to be pertinent. What this means is that Yan has conjured up something both ghastly and unreal, yet only liminally unreal, something that could possibly be real. This confusion between the potentially true and absolutely false is underscored by Yan’s own presence in the novel, as a character. Yan grew up in Gaotian and maintains a residence there, and returns when he is not touring the world as a famous writer. Niannian is fascinated with the town’s most celebrated resident, and mentions Yan’s novels, including a book called Kissing Lenin’s Years of Sun. Only, real-life Yan didn’t write a book with that title, but rather one called Lenin’s Kisses. Several other books are mentioned, each with titles slightly off from their real-world counterparts. The horror here has less to do with the content of these fictional creations, whether corpse oil or Yan’s novels, than the unsettling knowledge that they may not actually be real.

This leads us to the deepest and most compelling element of Yan’s horror, that of the persistent gap between literary devices and the objects they supposedly express. The Day The Sun Died is full of metaphors and similes, but these inevitably ring oddly with their apparently random, nonsensical comparisons. To cite just a few examples: “My breath was as loud and urgent as if someone had opened a sluice and released the water in the reservoir.” Or, “The dense stillness in the distance was as terrifying as a valley of black and invisible needles filling the sky.” The writing and translation are both excellent, which only makes these figures of speech all the more disquieting. Yan also likes repetition for dramatic effect, but repetition with difference:

She was dreamwalking.

She, too, was dreamwalking.

By this point, there were many villagers and townspeople who were dreamwalking.

Every reiteration contains a slight variant or digression, and the accumulation of these imperfect echoes communicates a fog of blurry outlines rather than clear forms.

The synapses between copies, between similes and the things they are supposed to relate, and between fact and fiction, are at the heart of this story. A central scene consists of Niannian attending a performance of sorts at the city hall, where the dreamwalking mayor and city officials are pretending to be the emperor and other figures from medieval Chinese history. They are able to do so because costumes and props for a recently performed opera happen to be on hand, and this little play-within-a-novel naturally sheds light on adumbrated desires and sinister intentions. But with this important moment, we arrive at the core question that Yan’s novel poses: what, really, is the difference between this story’s supposedly horrific premise of a dreamwalking pestilence, and supposed real life? How are people in real life different, and how are they any less slaves to their hidden impulses? If the local government officials reenact what is, after all, Chinese history, is the resultant spectacle fiction and entertainment, or merely documentary? And, most disconcertingly, is Yan’s novel a dystopian allegory, or is it masquerading as one, when in reality it is a straightforward testimony of China’s (and the world’s) lucid dreams and functional insanities?

Joanna Demers is a writer of fiction and scholarly works about music and culture. Her most recent books are Anatomy of Thought-Fiction: CHS Report, April 2214, and Drone and Apocalypse: An Exhibit Catalog for the End of the World, both published by Zero Books. She is associate professor of musicology at the USC Thornton School of Music.