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Review: Chan Koonchung's 'The Fat Years', the Book China Couldn't Ban

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Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years has caused quite a rumble in recent years. Banned in mainland China, but published in Hong Kong (and, allegedly, still read throughout China thanks to contraband copies), it has now been published in translation to widespread international acclaim. So what got the Chinese government so hot under the collar?

The Fat Years is set in China in the near future – so near, in fact, that it’s looking increasingly like the present. The global economy has collapsed, and as America’s dominance wanes so China has stepped forward to become the international leader. Everyone in China is so happy with this new state of affairs that they walk around in constant bliss, willfully ignoring the “lost month” of February between the economic crash and China’s ascendancy. What happened in those 28 days? And why is the country’s entire population suddenly so happy?

Koonchung’s novel has earned clear comparisons with Huxley’s Brave New World – the book is even referenced at one point – but in his heart he seems more enamored with the trappings of classic American noir. Protagonist Lao Chen is a writer who’s drawn into the governmental conspiracy by chance, when he’s visited by his eccentric friend Fang Caodi. There’s even a classic femme fatale in the form of Little Xi, and much of The Fat Years unravels like a suspenseful mystery, albeit one steeped in political commentary and oriental culture. You wouldn’t be too surprised to see J.J. Gittes wander into this particular Chinatown.

For Western audiences, however, even this noir scaffolding might not be quite enough to prop up The Fat Years‘ explicit politicizing and social commentary. Translator Michael Duke acknowledges this in his note at the end of the novel, but some readers may find his apology hard to swallow. Even allowing for cultural differences, the final act reads like a didactic monologue aimed at China’s ruling party, with no room for anything beyond exposition and political theorizing. It’s the equivalent of a Bond villain sitting down for the final 30 minutes of the movie and explaining his intentions, the political system he comes from, and the social pressures in his home country that forced him to seek world domination. The points are well made, but it can’t help undermine The Fat Years as a work of fiction.

If you’re more interested in Koonchung’s work as a glimpse behind China’s red curtain then it does an admirable job, and it’s easy to see why the Communist Party wasn’t too keen on its publication. There are revealing social asides from start to finish, and that final monologue might stand as one of the most articulate criticisms of modern China that the West has been allowed to see. For those who enjoy getting lost in the noir plot, however, it’s a shame that Lao Chen’s adventures go missing before the closing pages. If Koonchung had managed to marry these disparate elements of The Fat Years more fully then the West may truly have sat up and taken notice. As it is, we’re left with a stinging political essay – but the suspense story is largely lost in translation.

Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years is available now from all good bookstores, and the Random House website, priced $26.95.