Satire does not criticise; indeed, the best satire is the very opposite of criticism: It is relentless, unflinching affirmation. Satire embraces the way things are with boundless enthusiasm, joyfully relishes in the state of the world, perceives every bit of propaganda as the truth it claims to be, takes every pretense at face value and thus makes them shine in all their utter absurdity.
This makes the Good Soldier Svejk the ultimate satirist, and “the People’s Liberation Army’s three rules of thumb” as recorded in Yan Lianke’s novel Serve the People! certainly sound like Svejk could have formulated them: “Don’t Say What You Shouldn’t Say, Don’t Ask What You Shouldn’t Ask, Don’t Do What You Shouldn’t Do”. Wu Duwang, the protagonist of Serve the People!, however, is no Svejk – he might be a Model Soldier, but he is not content with what he has and wants more, is, as we are told right at the beginning of the novel, “greedy for laurels.”
Serve the People! is set during the time of the Cultural Revolution, and Yan Lianke shows ingeniously just how deeply everyone has internalized the regime’s propaganda by way of the similes which the novel is brimming over with – when a particular shade of red is described that can happen by comparison with the colour of a sunset or the colour of a specific propaganda poster, and both will be on exactly the same level. While this results in a very funny effect, there is also something quite serious at work there, for it indicates that propaganda has the same ontological status as nature, has indeed become second nature and is indiscernible from truth. The same holds true for one of the uses the title-giving slogan is put to – Wu Duwan gets assigned to assist the Division Commander, and as the Division Commander represents the People, serving the Division Commander becomes Serving the People. Wu Duwan effectively becomes the Division Commander’s servant, cook and gardener, and the novel never openly questions that he is serving the people this way even as the reader laughs at the absurdity of it.
Things begin to get complicated for Wu Duwan when the Division Commander is absent for an extended period of time and he finds himself tasked to Serve the People by serving the Division Commander’s wife Liu Lian – in quite intimate ways. As the two start an affair (initially on Liu Lian’s initiative towards a very reluctant Wu Duwan), some very interesting changes happen to the novel and to the reader’s attitude towards its protagonists. While neither Wu Duwan nor Liu Lian appeared very likable at the start of the novel, with the development of their affair we suddenly find ourselves (somewhat to the surprise of at least this reader) actually caring about them, and the satirical element, while never completely absent, recedes increasingly into the background, making room for an intense, and ultimately very sad love story.
As their affair progresses and becomes ever more absorbing and passionate, the lovers become like animals, and finally sink even lower down the creational ladder to become one with the earth, to be remade from clay; and synchronous with that the imagery shifts away from political propaganda, or more precisely – propaganda becomes appropriated by the lovers, turned away from its political significance and infused with a new personal, meaning. All of which is exemplified by the vagaries the title-giving Serve the People! poster undergoes; and the way Yan Lianke uses that image and that slogan in the course of the novel to symbolically indicate the current state of the relationship of the lovers while at the same time utilizing it as a plausible realistic prop is nothing short of brilliant.
It is pretty much clear from the start that things are not going to end well for the lovers; what does come as a surprise is that the melancholy that the ending is steeped is a result not of thwarted hopes but to the contrary, of everyone getting exactly what they wanted – or thought they did. While Serve the People! is set at a quite specific time and a very specific place and certainly could not have happened in the same way outside of that time and place, it transcends this setting, and is a novel first and foremost about human beings rather than about China during the Cultural Revolution.
Serve the People! is (I think) the first Chinese novel I have ever read, but likely will not remain the last one, and Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village is high on my to-read list for 2013.