Yu Hua, The Seventh Day (Melbourne: Text, 2015. 213 pages. Translated into English by Allan H, Barr,
Nota: Esta es la versión en inglés de la reseña publicada en castellano en Hermano Cerdo, que puedes, si lo prefieres, leer aquí
The passage from life to death should perhaps make it possible some sort of space or time wherein the deceased could gain access to some entertainment: a transitional period that would allow us to cast a last ironical glance around us and evaluate those who are left behind in the world of the living. Yet in reality – unless someone can prove the opposite – everything seems to indicate it is not so. Fortunately, literature, fiction, permits some licences. While we are it, who wouldn't enjoy such a thing?
In Yu Hua’s latest novel, The Seventh Day, the protagonist, Yang Fei, is a 41-year-old man recently killed by an explosion at the restaurant where he had been eating noodle soup, just as he was about to enjoy a small complimentary plate of seasonal fruit.
When he ‘wakes up’ the first day after his death, the city where he used to live is covered in thick fog through which he has to make his way to reach the crematorium, of which he poignantly says it is nowadays called a funeral parlour. He needs to hurry, as he has been assigned a cremation time, 9:30 am. Yang is washing at home and getting dressed with more appropriate clothes when the phone rings and a voice reminds him that he needs to be there at 9, with his pertinent booking receipt. Of course, he will be late.
The novel is made up of seven chapters that match the seven days between Yang’s death and the end of his pilgrimage across the Land of the Unburied.
The Seventh Day would be a macabre narrative were it not for the fact that irony is prevalent in Yu Hua’s writing. Where it is not, the novel feels too sentimentalist; yet let us not be deceived: there is a rich vein of black humour in this story.
At times the plot is nifty, innovative, amusing: Yu drafts a veiled criticism of contemporary Chinese society. Many of the dead he meets in his wanderings across the Land of the Unburied are destitute people who in their lifetime were unable to afford a small plot where their ashes can be buried. A married couple he stumbles upon explain how they died when the machinery sent by the local government knocked down their building while they were asleep inside, after having worked several shifts for very little pay. One girl roaming the weird ‘purgatory’ (the term is useless, but one has to write something!) of those who do not have a place where they can be buried tells Yang her story: how after scraping by with poorly-paid jobs she fell to her death from the highest building in the city. Later, Yang Fei meets the girl’s fiancé, who sold a kidney to one of the organ-harvesting mafias, got sick and died in abject poverty.
The Land of the Unburied is ‘populated’ by a multitude of dead. Most of them only have (literally) their bones left, resigned to spend eternity in a vast plain adorned with trees and rivers. In his rambling Yang runs into acquaintances; these are secondary characters who tell (us) their personal stories: these are significant additions to the plot because they allow Yu Hua to show many variegated perspectives of what life is like in today’s China, suggestive snippets of the kind of society prevalent in the Asian giant that has become the world economy’s big dynamo.
There are at least three different sections in the funeral parlour: one has plastic chairs for the less wealthy, another one has armchairs where the opulent sit while waiting their turn for their corpses to become ash, and the VIP zone which in the novel is used by the city mayor only, deceased in the room of a luxury hotel while enjoying the company of an attractive young lady.
Some episodes border on the obscene. Yang Fei is any case dead, and therefore he feels immune to criticism or the immoral weight of fame. In the seven days of the protagonist’s story, while he is searching for his father, also recently dead, and whom he assumes to be in the Land of the Unburied, Fei tells his life story: from how he was born in the most extraordinary fashion, falling though the toilet of a speeding train to his childhood with an unmarried father (the railway worker who found him on the tracks), his failed marriage to an attractive and ambitious woman, whom she finds in the bizarre limbo he keeps walking around in.
China, the ancient middle kingdom, is undeniably an economic and geopolitical superpower in the early 21st century. The country’s transformation in recent decades has been disproportionate. Its many problems, however, are well known: uncontrolled pollution, exhausted outdated models, political corruption and nepotism, unbridled consumerism and moral decadence (anyone interested in these issues would do well to read Chinese-Australian Ouyang Yu’s latest novel, Diary of a Naked Official – N.B. the review is in Spanish). Yu Hua does not hide: his criticism of the system is no obstacle for his characters to display (who are dead, let’s not forget) the kind of kindness and tenderness ordinary people who struggle to make a living day after day do have. As is often the case, the most vulnerable, the weakest, are those who powerlessly witness unstoppable economic growth, of which they will never get to taste a morsel.
Money can buy everything, apparently even after death. That is why the VIPs are cremated in an imported machine with leading-edge technology, whereas the poor have to go through the locally manufactured inefficient contraption. In any case, do not forget to take your number.