He kept talking to the dog until it became quite used to the sound of his voice. It hardly looked up now when he spoke. It came and went without trepidation, eating and barking its curt acknowledgement from across the street. Soon now, Neville told himself, I’ll be able to pat his head. The days passed into pleasant weeks, each hour bringing him closer to a companion.
Richard Matheson, I Am Legend
We may approach Yan Lianke’s 1997 novella The Years, Months, Days through another, perhaps rather unexpected, work — Richard Matheson’s iconic 1954 novel, I Am Legend. The protagonist of the latter work, Robert Neville, finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has been ravaged by a virulent bacillus. Neville believes he may be the only survivor of this plague. One day he finds a stray dog, and — desperate for any form of companionship — attempts to befriend it. Although the dog is also traumatised by the plague, Neville succeeds in gaining its trust, and the dog becomes the most important being in his life.
Yan Lianke’s novella is set against a similarly apocalyptic landscape. Following a devastating drought, the entire population of a remote Henan village flees, leaving behind only an old man and a stray dog. The old man refuses to follow the others because he doubts that he could survive the journey, while the dog stays because it is blind — its eyes were scorched by the sun when the villagers attempted to sacrifice it to the rain gods. Alone in the deserted village, the old man and the blind dog develop a close bond as they battle starvation. The old man perceives not only the dog but also other animals and plants as either helping him survive, or attempting to take advantage of him. Acute hunger leads the old man to view the entire world in his own image, and simultaneously to see it as his mortal enemy.
Famine was a fact of life in the poor rural community in which Yan Lianke grew up. Yan was born in 1958, the first year of the Great Leap Forward—a political campaign that was intended to jumpstart China’s economy but instead precipitated the Great Famine, in which tens of millions of Chinese starved to death in a three-year period. Yan used this historic famine as the backdrop of his 2011 novel, The Four Books. Other works also focus on remote rural communities facing environmental and existential challenges: Streams of Time (1998) features a village poisoned by industrial contaminants (a version of what came to be known as cancer villages), where all the residents succumb to esophageal cancer before they reach the age of forty; in Lenin’s Kisses (2004), almost all the residents of the village are handicapped or disabled; Dream of Ding Village (2006) depicts an AIDS village in Yan’s home province of Henan (which was the epicentre of China’s 1990s rural AIDS epidemic). What distinguishes The Years, Months, Days from these works, however, is that the focus is not on a community, but rather on an individual who finds himself almost completely isolated.
As in many of Yan’s other works, in The Years, Months, Days the author does not use quotation marks to differentiate dialogue from narrative. Instead, each of the old man’s utterances — whether he is speaking to another person, to an animal, a plant, or to himself — opens with a pair of dashes and ends with a line break, or segues back to the main narrative. In order to preserve this sense of continuity between narrative and dialogue, this English translation of the work uses quotation marks only for the handful of passages in which people are talking to one another, and uses italics for all other remarks by the protagonist to his non-human surroundings, or to himself. The intended result is to help blur the boundary — at a typographical and a conceptual level — between the protagonist’s consciousness and his immediate environment.
Yan Lianke’s own relationship with his community and with the outside world is a complicated one. Several of his works have been banned, recalled, or self-censored within China due to the perception that their contents are politically sensitive—even as many of those same works have won prestigious accolades abroad. Yan has, for example, repeatedly explained that he felt he had to preemptively censor himself while writing Dream of Ding Village, so that the novel would be accepted by the censors. In the end the work was published, but was banned after the first printing. It went on to be shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The Four Books was not accepted for publication by any Mainland publisher either, but was published in Taiwan and went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Most recently, his novel The Day the Sun Died (2015) also failed to be accepted by any Mainland publishers, but was published in Taiwan and won Hong Kong’s top literary award, the Dream of the Red Chamber Prize. The Years, Months, Days won Mainland China’s triannual Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2001, and remains one of his most best-known works in his home country.
I Am Legend famously concludes with Neville coming to perceive himself from a previously unthinkable perspective. The end of The Years, Months, Days gestures to a similar reversal — pulling the reader out of the old man’s focus on his own survival, and offering a hint that his memory might become the stuff of legend.
This is the translator’s preface to The Years, Months, Days, published by Text. Details here.