In a previous collection of short stories, Boy in The Twilight, Yu Hua describes a simpleton (some might call him dim-witted) who cannot even remember his own name: His parents are dead, he has no wife and child — nor even the prospect of any — and at one point, he wonders who is going to bury him when he dies.
Yu's new book The Seventh Day — by turns inventive and playful and dark and disturbing, with much to say about modern China — takes that idea and weaves it into a fabulist tale. A 41-year-old man named Yang Fei, recently dead, receives a notice that instructs him to show up for his own funeral. He cleans himself up, puts on appropriate clothes, and then adds a black armband because he remembers that he is a "single man, parentless and childless, with nobody to come and mourn my passing, so it was up to me to wear one."
When his turn comes at the funeral parlor, however, Yang Fei chooses to remain seated and skip his funeral. Heading back out, he finds himself up in the "land of the unburied," a sort of neverland where there "roamed everywhere the figures of those who had no graves," where "leaves were shaped like hearts," and where "many people, some just bones, some still fleshed," wander back and forth. Yang Fei haunts the place, looking for his vanished father — whom he presumes has also died and not been cremated.
In between his search for his father, and his encounters with those recently dead and not yet buried, we learn of Yang Fei's life — the story of his incredible birth aboard a moving train, and his childhood as the adopted son of a single father, which though "in material terms ... was impoverished, it was warm and idyllic in emotional tenor." Then courtship, and marriage to a woman who he comes to realize he was "simply not good enough for."
The Seventh Day has a slightly complex structure that demands much of a reader. There are in this slim volume, translated from the Chinese by Alan H. Barr, elements of the surreal, the fantastical and the absurd: Sounds explode "like boiling water," or colors are "as warm as that of snow," or the sound of breathing is "like little ripples spreading across a calm lake." For the most part, Yu's prose remains elegant and sharp. The humor is often bawdy, but feels right in this disquieting book that is both deeply personal and deeply political.
Yang Fei runs across a few acquaintances from the land of the living — a family killed by a demolition ordered by the authorities, a girl who commits suicide because she wants the latest iPhone from her boyfriend, protestors killed opposing a land grab. And then there are the officials waiting around for their own funerals, chatting about the "relative expense of the crematees' garments and urns."
These stories might sound unsubtle, a little too ripped-from-the-headlines, but they represent an increasingly important reality of modern China: The wanton greed, the desire for material objects in what is increasingly a consumerist society, the vicious social climbing, the nepotism. Yu doesn't shy away from the harshness of modern China — but he also highlights the humanity and kindness of ordinary people, their small everyday struggles, and their refusal to bow before the diktats of the government.
Nishant Dahiya is NPR's Asia Editor. He tweets at @nprnishant