Saturday, February 21, 2009

Serve the People! By Yan Lianke

One trait of dystopian novels - We, Anthem, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale - is the idea that certain behavior is out of bounds in a dictatorship. Certain images, words, books become sacred, and there is a corresponding need to outlaw other images, words and books. In the era of politics as a surrogate for religion, such a thing becomes even more vital. To control the behavior of its citizens, the state has to control thought - and since the mass production of information began, images stand in for thoughts.

Serve the People! was one of many slogans of Mao’s Chinese government, and is the ironic title of this underground novel from Communist China. It follows Wu Dawang, a Red Army soldier who soon finds himself involved with Liu Lian, the wife of a division commander. Wu Dawang is only an orderly in a sleepy little post in Mao’s China, but in the arms of his mistress, he becomes for just a few sweet moments a man of power.

This shouldn’t be too unfamiliar to anyone who has read “1984.” In a repressive culture, illicit sex becomes a way to express subversive behavior. Usually in books of this type, it’s the main vehicle for the hero - or heroine - to realize just how stultifying their life has become. Sex is a threat to order, and in a repressive society, even the most private behavior can break faith with the state. In this novel, the twist is Liu Lian uses the communist apparatus to her advantage. In a house strewn with revolutionary slogans, the most prominent is the Chairman’s directive to “Serve the people!” Wu Dawang learns that when Liu Lian wants a rendezvous, she uses the sign. He must serve her, “the people.”

What’s interesting is how the state co-opts even the highest ideals of human civilization, twisting them:

“’What,’ he asked, ‘is the first, and only principle of Serving the People?’
‘To serve others as you would wish to be served yourself,’ Wu Dawang replied.
‘How do we give our lives meaning?’
‘By bringing glory to the enterprise of Serving the People every day of our lives and by devoting ourselves as absolutely to serving the needy as a son should devote himself to serving his parents.’”

Pretty words, the political instructor tells Wu Dawang, though he dislikes the parent analogy. Of course. There is no parent other than the state. In the end, Wu is only saying what he thinks the state wants to hear. It doesn’t matter that it’s the golden rule. Serving the people is saving your skin. As is said later, “the meek shall inherit the Revolution.” Everything is collective, all suffering together.

The affair continues, as it must. And yet, this is the sum of Communism - or any totalitarian movement that subverts life - every institution inevitably becomes corrupted. When Wu realizes what fate awaits him when the affair is inevitably discovered, he momentarily thinks of killing her. Both of them realize that deep within them is anger - rage looking for a direction, though neither knows where it comes from nor why it touches every aspect of their lives. “Wu Dawang, we’ve become animals,” Liu says.

Wu and Liu discover the depth and source of their anger when she maneuvers him into accidentally destroying the bust of the Chairman - “an accident of incalculable counter-revolutionary enormity.” And yet, the two of them begin rampaging through the house, destroying anything having to do with the state - pictures of Mao, slogans, yet they stop short, just before Liu is set to smash the Serve the People! sign.

Wu’s marriage - as well as Liu’s - is a lie, but then, everything is in the world of this novel. How far is it from our world? Not politically, but morally. For the Christian, sin is slavery, not freedom. Yet in a sinful state apparatus, virtually everything is colored with sin - either morally or politically. Every lie becomes deeper, until even the truth we must have to survive seems like a lie. In a world where the only meaning comes from an illicit love affair, what ultimate meaning is there? But how different is that from life in any government, even one with absolute freedom?
The truths we cling to - apart from the Eternal - are so many icons, waiting to be smashed.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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