The Years Months Days cover[Grove Press; 2017]

Tr. by Carlos Rojas

In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal. One sun after another passed overhead, and from dawn till dusk, the Elder could hear his hair burning.

Before I read the two novellas, I read the two sentences. I would take the book, look at the portrait on the cover by Fang Lijun and think that it is very fortunate that I like the bald headed man rendered in grey and his undecided upward facing look. Kind of curious, kind of resigned, kind of dumb, kind of wise. The way the bald-headed man looks upward has a calming effect on me, I would think, before I would open the book, skip the translator’s note, and re-read the first two sentences of Yan Lianke’s novella The Years, Months, Days.

In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal. One sun after another passed overhead, and from dawn till dusk, the Elder could hear his hair burning.

I did not know how to proceed beyond the first two sentences for quite some time. I am not ready yet, I would think, undress and step into the shower, where, under a pleasing stream of warm water, I pieced together a resemblance of Salvador Dali’s desert painting with the dripping clocks. First the colors of the painting appeared above the white shower tiles, yellow would trickle into orange thickly, then blue began spilling into yellow sand, then those dripping pocket watches slowly draped themselves over stones and crawled up onto dead tree branches to hang themselves in this landscape made of sand or sandstone, a barren scenery, desolate, dry, still; a sterile rendering with a few black ants and a brightly colored ocean, filled with salty water one could not drink. The title would come to me: The Persistence of Memory, Salvadore Dali, 1931.

I read about a Chinese Elder who can hear “his hair burning from dawn till dusk in the year of the great draught,” and respond to the proposition by stepping into the shower and ask myself what universal symbolism means, I would think. A way of bypassing an impossible reality, the rejection of absolute truth, hostile to plain meaning?

 In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash . . .

Nothing concrete, no details, no years, no numbers, but perhaps burnt paper flying through the air like insects hit by lightening slowly accumulating into masses of unstable, dark matter; perhaps smiles scorched to ash, love burned to ash, charred animals, mountain ranges of burnt life, hollow eyes next to human tents of see-through yellow skin. Faint fragrances transformed into white smoke, cries going grey; moans and hisses settling down as extinguished matter on glowing edges; rice bowls, shoes, maggots, all that burned to ash. How much of such a time is out there to be baked, I wondered. And who is going to take responsibility for the reification of that time and what it stands for? Yan Lianke? The Communist Party? The ancestors of Mao Zedong or his children?

On a sunny afternoon last summer I walked into a big movie theater completely devoid of people and watched “The Ditch” by Wang Bing. After the film ended I looked at the documents and photos exhibited in the back of the movie theater. They gave some insights into Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flower’s Campaign (1956-57) during which Chinese intellectuals were encouraged to contribute their opinions on national policy issues in order to ensure a sense of plurality in the new people’s republic. Once they had contributed their opinions, their statements were examined and many were branded “right-wing deviants” for their criticism of the Communist Party and sentenced to forced labour. The film takes place in one of those camps in an underground hole and shows how the inmates slowly die of exhaustion or starvation. It’s a very slow film depicting the dying of people. It was so bleak, I forgot to breath at times.

The Elder asked, What are you afraid of?

The dog didn’t respond, and instead it simply lay down beside him. The Elder asked, Are you afraid there will be a catastrophe?

The dog still didn’t answer, and instead it simply looked at the cornstalk.

According to the highest ranking google results on the Internet between 20 and 39 million people starved to death during the Great Famine in China that occurred between 1959 and 1961 as a result of bad weather conditions, massive mismanagement, devastating agricultural government regulations, and corruption. Nothing of this is ever mentioned in The Years, Months, Days, yet in the “Translator’s Note,” that proceeds the two novellas, I eventually learned that Yan Lianke was born in the rural Henan province in 1958, and that hunger constantly followed him around, “like a tail,” that hunger was so intense and existential, it took on material existence.

He couldn’t afford to let the older wolves see that he could barely remain upright. He thought, If you reveal just a bit of exhaustion, they will immediately attack. If you can manage to stand here without moving a muscle, you may live, but if you start to sway, you’ll surely die.

Only one time in his life, when I was about eight or nine years old, my paternal grandfather told me about his time in the camp and his hunger. As I pictured him collapsed in the mud, his bones sticking out, next to his open-eyed mates who had been killed by the frost of the night, I asked him how he had survived. He said, that every morning he would take his ration of bread, put it under his hat, and force himself to not eat it until the evening. There was no greater torture in this world than smelling the bread all day long and not be able to eat it, he said. On the other hand, he said, he spent his days knowing that he would have a piece of bread for dinner. After eight months, he escaped from the camp and made it home alive and many years later, during a hot, unpleasant summer, he trained his grandchildren in how to survive World War III.

The Years, Months, Days. There is never a question of why the blind dog can see and think and nod or not and cry through tears. We know that Blindy’s eyes got charred by the sun, after the villagers had tied him up between two poles, so he would bark at the sun, furiously day after day after day. The villagers hoped, I assume, the sun would eventually have enough of the barking and hide behind rain-filled heavy clouds, that would come rushing in, covering the sun’s shame for producing so much fury and misery on the land and its embedded souls, which then would save the villagers from having to abandon their land and flee their village in order to avoid starvation during this prolonged drought.

Once the Elder realizes that there won’t be rain before the dog will die, he unties him and gives him water and food. Thus, three main characters stay behind, after every green plant matter has disappeared, every person and animal has left the mountain range, and time is baked to ash: The Elder, the blind dog and a cornstalk, which the Elder smelled on Baliban field, after everyone was gone, and the Elder had experienced what an empty heart and a sense of stillness did to his existence. By the time this happened, the corn stalk was as tall as a chop-stick and appeared as green as a drop of water.

An Elder, a blind dog and a corn stalk.

A country road. A tree.


Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before. Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.

At first, Yan Lianke’s novella seems to situate the Elder’s and Blindy’s longing for the growth of the corn stalk in the same dramatic field of existentialism or nihilism in which Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for the appearance of Godot. Yet it soon becomes apparent that the characters’ reactions against their desolation, while fundamentally very similar, is different in one main point: While Estragon and Vladimir grow tragic humor out of total desperation and spend a lot of energy word-playing if it’s worthwhile waiting for Godot, the Elder and Blindy never truly question if caring for their single corn stalk is a realistic or an absurd option that will save them from starving to death. Of course, the Elder curses the sky and takes a whip and beats up the sun, but beyond blunt bursts of fury, Blindy and the Elder don’t much ponder their powerlessness against the merciless draught that will kill them. Instead, the Elder picks up his shoulder pole with the two buckets dangling on it and walks to the abandoned village well to fetch water, while Blindy stays behind to guard the plant. As long as there is still water in the well, they both drink water to quench their thirst, but they also drink, it seems, so they can pee next to the cornstalk and provide it with fertilizer in order to help it to mature and produce seeds. They even succeed to some degree in the end. Yet, their success doesn’t provide hope or relief, nor is it as strangely funny as the failures of Vladimir and Estragon. There is nothing to giggle, no lingering laughter about the senselessness of it all. The Elder’s story is not even heartbreaking, in a conventional Hollywood sense, most likely because the Elder is so dead serious about his task (to save humanity), you would not even dare to cry, without collecting and shipping those tears to the Balibou mountain range to water the Elder’s corn-stalk. To put it simply: There is nothing much one can do, but bow and show respect. That’s all.

The Years, Months, Days. The Elder weighs the corn he digs out of rat nests with a scale. Then he weighs the sun rays. One day they almost weigh six qian. The Elder presses his ears to the leaves and hears the corn stalk’s dry patches squeaking as they expand. He hears the sun cackle with laughter when she sinks below the mountains. One wonders: At what point do things abstract or intangible take on physical shape and form and matter?  The life-threatening situation he is in heightens the Elder’s senses to such degrees, that almost everything around him becomes physical. The Elder smells, tastes, hears, sees, feels strange things. And so do I. Yet, it’s not the sun I hear cackle with laughter between the lines. It’s rather that I smell the impact of censorship, which makes me wonder, how a Chinese writer like Yan Lianke has adapted to his circumstances, how he does bypass political infiltration, propaganda, corruption, brain wash, man made catastrophes and violations of human rights. Whom does he call, whom does he trust, when does he leave, how can he stay, how does he write it down, who does the translation?

The Elder stood there motionless, staring intently.

If the sun is merciless, one is powerless against the sun. The Elder stares in shock a lot at things that are happening around him. He knows there is no other way but to surrender to his circumstances, but can he be powerless with dignity? Is there shade to stand up straight? He loses his awareness of time, so how can he be incapable of changing the present and yet maintain a sense of the future simultaneously?

The Elder said, Can we continue to endure it, Blindy?

When times are bearable, or even good, there are a lot of things that we dismiss, because even though they can be sensed and felt, they can hardly be measured or put into sentences. Yan Lianke seems to suggest that we have to try anyways. It is the confusion that comes with the real-life impact of intangible things that causes the most destruction. When we have entered a time, when sun rays kill the people and the consequences of murders are measured in years of punishment, then let’s use a scale to measure the weight of sun rays and then convert them into time. The Years, Months, Days. Let’s measure the weight of starving 20-39 million people to death and convert it into something “that sticks to your palm.” What Yan Lianke does is offering the idea that alternatives exist, even in situations that render us seemingly incapable of taking action.

Time was like a silent ox pulling a cart, slowly crushing the Elder’s will.

The Years, Months, Days. One could say, that his obsessive care for the corn-stalk makes the Elder a hero, but other than that he is a typical peasant, who alternates between cursing and kicking his dog and sharing philosophical thoughts and his last bit of food with him. One could also say, that his care for the corn-stalk brings out what is human about humans, in a situation where people turn into basic forces driven into ways that will enable them to survive. One could also say that acute hunger makes people, plants and animals hallucinate collectively. One could also assume the sky goes mad if hasn’t been touched by clouds in a long time, or that extreme experiences shrink the estrangement from our surroundings. One could also say, that the blind dog is like the Elder’s child and the corn-stalk his women. One does not even have to be that specific. One could just say, that most people can not live without companions. They would rather die together earlier, than completely alone later. One could also say, that once acute starvation becomes the state of existence, one can’t give a shit about the government being democratic or socialist or communist. Every nutrient that enters the body is immediately absorbed by the organs. The luxury of shitting is gone. Sometimes, I think, we have to remember that, when we, who already got everything we ever wanted from Ikea, talk about China’s rapid growth and its rise of the standard of living today as a massive ecological and psychological disaster. The Great Chinese Famine, or the Three Years of Natural Disasters as the government of the People’s Republic of China called the period, is the time when John, Paul, Ringo and George formed the Beatles in Liverpool and when many Americans thought they stood at the dawn of a Golden Age. It’s not that long ago. In 1961 John F. Kennedy became president of the United States and promised that “the government possessed big answers to big problems,” while the government in China engaged its dying citizens in the Great Sparrow Campaign, in which everyone was called upon to kill sparrows and other wild birds that ate crop seeds in order to protect fields, which resulted in an explosion of the vermin population, which had no predators to thin it down.

 The Years, Months, Days. At one point hundreds and thousands of rats come through the valley into the fictitious Baliban mountains and threaten the existence of the Elder and his dog and his corn-stalk. The Elder and Blindy fear and fight and eventually kill and skin and cook and eat some of the rats, until one day they are all gone and nothing else to eat is left. Nothing. Zero.

What he couldn’t understand was how were the rats able to come together to form such an enormous pile? They seemed to be under orders to march south, but what was in the south? Was there grain and water and shade? To the east there was the golden sun, and the Elder suddenly noticed that the rats’ eyes had all turned bright red, and appeared to roll down the street like a wave of pearls.

When I pictured the rats, I immediately searched for a possible allegory, yet when nothing occurred to me, I didn’t step into the shower. I went online and read more about the Great Chinese Famine and now, that I know some things about the Great Sparrow Campaign, I think it was just rats. Real rats. Hundreds and thousands of them. Running and squeaking and screaming and smelling and attacking, until they were all starved to death, shortly before the Elder and his dog dug their own graves, close to the corn-stalk, so that their rotting remains could serve as fertilizer for the stalk to mature and the kernels to ripen, and the villagers could plant those seeds, once the drought was over and they would return to the village.

The second novella in the book is called “Marrow.

It begins like this:

The entire world smelled of autumn. The fall harvest season arrived before you knew it. In the mountains, the sweet smell of corn was so thick it would stick in your throat. Drop by drop, the autumn light streamed down onto the roofs of houses, onto the tips of grass, and onto the hair of peasants working in the fields.

It must have been either before of after the famine. Probably before. If the peasants are working in the fields, it might mean in their own fields, before the forced collectivization of land after the Russian model. Still, I was wondering why it was corn again, and not rice. I always thought it was rice.

At the beginning of “Marrow,” Fourth Wife You gives birth to three daughters and one son. Fourth Wife You and her husband Stone You are a happy farming family until they are told, six months after the birth of their son, that all four children have inherited a disease from their father’s side that skipped a generation. There is no cure. All four children will turn out to be idiots. The doctor put it this way:

You have four children and all four are idiots. You could have eight, and you’d have eight idiots. If you were to have a hundred children, they would all be idiots as well. You should go home and think hard about how you’ll care for your four children for the rest of your lives.

The father, devastated by this news, drowns himself in the river, which leaves Fourth Wife You to raise her four children by herself. The villagers respond to the situation by being ashamed, maybe even angered. Their collective status is degraded as their village is now called by other peasants in the mountain range: The Village of Four Idiots. Fourth Wife You assesses the situation with clarity. There is no other way but to raise her children alone by growing food on her field. Alone. Using the vocabulary the doctor equipped her with, she calls them idiots, but that doesn’t mean that she thinks that children with mental problems don’t deserve anything less than any other person in the world. No less food, no less, love, no less respect in the community, no less opportunity to find a happy life. She recognizes their individual needs and tries to accommodate them. She loves her children enough to lock them up for days so they won’t have sex with each other or the goat while she is plowing the fields trying to provide food for them. She has a sense of responsibility that makes her slap them in the face in order to prevent worse. Her hardship makes her focused, determined, inventive, strong, and proud. She spits in the face of villagers who don’t treat her with respect. Only her own children have the power to make her weak. Only her own children are able exploit her and threaten her existence. Her almost impossible task makes her sometimes unreasonable. Reality is so real it takes on other forms. She often talks to her deceased husband, who appears continuously in order to be cursed, or asked for advice, a useless bystander who is absolutely essential. Like my grandfather, always there, for exactly that reason, even many years after my grandmother had managed to raise her four children by herself after her husband’s death in a foreign village. What I learned about my grandmother’s past was through the ways in which her neighbors treated her with either a lot of respect, disdain, or shame. The respect, I suspect now, came from the fact that my grandmother had succeeded in raising her four children in their village. Alone. All by herself. The disdain and shame came from knowing how she had done it. And what and who had forced her to do it this way.

Fourth Wife You said, “We are trying to cure his daughter’s illness. There is nothing to explain.” With this, she entered the tomb, squatted in front of the coffin and pushed aside a couple of maggots that had fallen onto the leg bones. She looked everything over and saw that, apart from some white moss, the walls of the tomb were completely intact. “Good soil in this tomb,” she remarked. The she turned and asked, “Did you bring a sack?”

Once Fourth Wife You’s children have grown into adults with adult desires, she sets out to marry her children to wholers, and under no circumstances to a cripple or a deaf man or a limping one or anyone else with any sort of disability. She will give everything to not give in for less.

Fourth Wife You eventually succeeds in finding wholers for all her children and then uses the bones of their dead father to cook them a broth that cures all four of them of their disease once and for all. She seems to have succeeded to find a cure for idiocy.

But, that’s not the end of the story. After Fourth Wife You’s son and three daughter’s are married and cured of their illness, they become pregnant and Fourth Wife You dies. Neatly dressed like ordinary people the adult children crowd around the coffin and cry inconsolably. They cry and cry, until their dead mother speaks:

“This illness is hereditary. Do all of you know how to treat your own children?”

When they heard this, they abruptly stopped crying. They buried Fourth Wife You’s body to the right of Stone You’s.

If the cure doesn’t cure. . . I assume the disease itself might not even be the disease, but our obsession to find a cure for our struggles and be happy for the rest of our lives.

To read a book is to be read by a book. To read fiction is to be directed by fiction. To be addressed by Yan Lianke’s two novellas isn’t necessarily an intervention that touches the leg muscles, which run for survival in a fire, or one that fortifies the brain cells that deal with probabilities, which calculate my chances of being rescued by a helicopter. It’s more like something that’s been administered to the semi-solid tissue found within the spongy portions of the bones. Marrow, I just looked up, contains the stem cells, and those stem cells I learned, can develop into red blood cells that carry oxygen through your body, white blood cells that fight infections, and into platelets that help prevent blood clotting.

Franziska Lamprecht is an artist who started writing as an extension of the long-term process based works, she produces together with her husband Hajoe Moderegger under the name eteam. Their projects have been featured at PS1 NY, MUMOK Vienna, Centre Pompidou Paris, Transmediale Berlin, Taiwan International Documentary Festival, New York Video Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, the 11th Biennale of Moving Images in Geneva, among many others.

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