The idea of memory tends to be ever present in the minds of people who live in countries where the state tells them what to remember and what to forget. In Chan Koonchung's political science fiction thriller The Fat Years, the month of February 2011 has gone missing from people's minds in China and it's up to an assorted group of misfits to find out what happened to it.
Not that the population as a whole seems to be particularly bothered. In fact, quite the reverse. The year is 2013, China is rich and its people are basking in the warm glow of a nation suddenly propelled to global pre-eminence by the collapse of its western competitors. In one scene early on, Old Chen, the book's main character, actually bursts into tears at the thought of China's success and the Communist Party's benevolence. It's a scene very reminiscent of that towards the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four when a chastened Winston Smith cries with love for Big Brother. But where Winston cried salty tears into his raw gin, Old Chen weeps discreetly into his Starbucks Lychee Black Dragon Latte. These are, after all, the fat years.
Old Chen bears quite a strong resemblance to the author (Chan's name in Mandarin is Chen Guanzhong). Now resident in Beijing, from where he has pursued a number of successful media interests, Chan is a successful media entrepreneur and filmmaker whose family emigrated to Hong Kong from Shanghai after the Communist Party took power in 1949.
As a wealthy and cosmopolitan fellow, he could choose to live anywhere. He prefers the Big Dumpling, apparently, because that is where the decisions are made.
Indeed, the China of The Fat Years is the China dreamed of by the men who rule it: mushrooming prosperity, social and political tranquillity, global preponderance and a population ready to burst with self-satisfaction and bumptious patriotism when not at the wonderfully easy daily business of making money. Formal censorship mechanisms are present but barely necessary because intellectual curiosity seems to have curled up and died of its own accord.
Old Chen is a journalist and author, but finds himself too distracted to do much writing. Instead he wanders about, savouring Beijing's atmosphere of weightless prosperity. And it is in these wanderings that he encounters the people determined to uncover the mystery of the missing month. One is an old flame, Little Xi, whose family once ran a restaurant where intellectuals gathered and dreamed of change in the heady days before the Tiananmen massacre. Before that, she was a junior magistrate who resigned in disgust at the excesses of one of China's regular "strike hard" campaigns. Another, Fang Caodi, is a constantly travelling free spirit raised in a Daoist temple. He has been everywhere, seen everything, and is relentlessly, dangerously curious.
They represent trends marginalised both in Chan's idealised version of China's future and in the People's Republic of today, namely the earnest, reforming liberal and the ungovernable, wandering truth seeker. More crudely, they represent justice and freedom, and together they pull Chen, a self-described objective observer, towards the rediscovery of what happened in the fateful month.
The official story is that the western economies collapsed at the beginning of February 2011, just as China reoriented its economic policy away from export dependency and towards domestic consumption, enabling its people to surf the economic chasm on a tide of consumer spending while suddenly finding themselves the inheritors of global political hegemony.
But there are scraps of information that tell a different story, one of panic, fear and chaos, incessant rumours of economic collapse, of truckloads of soldiers entering villages and the disappearance of awkward and inconvenient persons.
The mystery is cleared up when the group kidnap He Dongsheng, a high-ranking Communist Party cadre and old friend of Chen, who for no particularly good reason decides to tell all in a long, intermittently fascinating but undeniably rambling testimony that takes up the last 40 pages of the book.
Chan has written elsewhere that in order to be able to write effectively about China it is necessary to follow the example set by the Tang dynasty songstress Jiang Su, who could sing two songs at once, one from the back of the throat and one through her nose. Perhaps the major problem with The Fat Years is that the rich baritone of the book's social and political content overwhelms the thin, nasal tone of plot and character. Chan has too much he needs to say to be a great believer in showing rather than telling. Dongsheng's monologue clears everything up in a manner that is artistically unsatisfying. But the wider point is that his smug, hectoring tone is meant to represent the way in which the CPC habitually addresses the Chinese people. It not only has all the power but insists on having all the answers and droning on about the fact at great length.
Elsewhere, there are succinct marginal disquisitions on matters such as the techniques used by officials to avoid sparking riots and the ways in which unofficial churches manage uneasy coexistence with the authorities. It's not clear that the general reading public is as interested in things like these as it probably should be.
Characters also tend to pop up and then vanish once they have served their purpose of illustrating contemporary Chinese types. The best of these is Wei Guo, an ambitious young thug who aspires to a niche in the propaganda apparatus and is a member of a secret society called the SS. Aside from the obvious fascist overtones, the initials also signify the favourite western philosophers in Chinese ultranationalist circles, namely Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt. But having served his purpose in warning us of overtly fascist tendencies within the CPC, Wei simply vanishes.
The Communist Party was once quite insistent on putting politics in command, in literature as elsewhere. While that insistence has vanished, there was no prospect of the Chinese authorities allowing Chan's hard, cold and hyperreal analysis of Chinese society to be published on the mainland when it originally came out in 2008. It was not precisely banned. It was just that every publisher knew that it would be impossible to publish. And when Chan put the book free to download from his own website, he soon found himself vanishing from the Chinese internet.
At times, censorship is a merely technical matter in China, where The Fat Years was soon circulating by semi-clandestine means. Some readers took the book not as a warning but as a blueprint. "If only China could be just like this!" wrote one local blogger.
Chan himself rejects dissident status, and while his heroes are against the system, he is mainly concerned to explain the dilemma faced by the people of China in an environment of "90 per cent freedom." Dongsheng asserts that rapid reform would not lead to democracy but to worse dictatorship. Old Chen recalls a poem by the radical writer Lu Xun which asks whether it is better to live in a fake paradise than a real hell (the wider context to this is that Lu's works, once prominent on the Chinese literature curriculum, are now being themselves nudged down the memory hole).
The secret of the bizarre ebullience of the public is soon revealed by Dongsheng. The Communist Party has been putting drugs in the water supply, in the best Brave New World style. The secret of the missing month turns out to be altogether more disturbing. It was not erased on the orders of the Communist Party. Instead, the public chose to forget a period of chaos and violence in a time of peace and prosperity. They chose a fake paradise of their own free will.
This has always been how the deal in China has been understood. So long as the government delivers the goods, the people support it. That in itself ignores the fact that China is a country where people don't actually have much choice other than to basically consent to whatever government they are given. In these circumstances, it's natural to take whatever fat years happen to come along. But what if the fake paradise and the real hell are in the same place?
On July 23, two trains from China's prestigious high-speed rail network collided near the city of Wenzhou, killing 40 people and sparking a near unprecedented wave of public outrage. Later that week, China Central Television anchor Qiu Qiming pulled all the threads together in a remarkable on-air soliloquy.
"If nobody can be safe, do we still want this speed? Can we drink a glass of milk that's safe? Can we stay in an apartment that will not fall? Can the roads we travel on in our cities not collapse? Can we travel in safe trains? And if and when a major accident does happen, can we not be in a hurry to bury the trains? Can we afford the people a basic sense of security? China, please slow down."
Rather than heading towards the fake paradise of The Fat Years, many people in China now see themselves in an authentic inferno of crashing trains, collapsing apartments, poisoned food and disintegrating roads and bridges; as victims rather than beneficiaries of the development-obsessed ideology of the government. Written in 2008, The Fat Years is an excellent summary of the path China believed it was on at the time, still reflects China's official dreams, and still offers a cool and caustic assessment of the dreamers. Even so, and even though the book has only just been published in English, it could do with a sequel. Perhaps Development Hell would be a good title.
Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China and its growing interaction with the rest of the world.