A poet who renounces poetry in order to become a surgeon? Sounds a bit implausible, right? This isn’t the only thing in this book that comes across as implausible, but that’s not why it’s unpublished in China.
No, the reason the Chinese government won’t allow it to be printed is that it’s a political allegory which is highly critical of topical events in China’s past and of the Chinese leadership’s role in them, most notably Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The book opens in fictional city Beiping, where a massive pile of excrement appears in the town square for no apparent reason. People want to know what it is and why it’s there. We never find out. There are protests, in which the young, educated literati play a central role. The government clamps down, martial law ensues. The book then takes a sharp turn, and we find the central character, ex-poet and sometimes surgeon, Mengliu, having journeyed (he can’t quite recall how, and the description of the journey is deliberately indirect and vague) to a place called Swan Valley.
“…but anyway, please be less selfish, and think more for the collective good.”
Swan Valley is never geographically located within the book. It could be anywhere, and maybe it isn’t anywhere – maybe it’s a state of mind. Mengliu, having fought for freedom and democracy, struggles to come to terms with this place where there is nothing to protest. Everybody seems happy and fulfilled, and the town seems well-ordered and affluent, but as we learn more about Swan Valley, we learn how strange it is.
For instance, sex is illegal (alarms in bedrooms go off, those caught suffer barbaric punishment), procreation is genetically engineered (to create geniuses), the tea has mysterious mind-scrubbing properties (to make people forget their past), and the nursing home, where people are forced to ‘retire’ when they are 50, is not what you’d think a nursing home ought to be.
Swan Valley’s population seem to think they’re free, living in this strange utopia, and they do not question their leaders. They’re willing to take the bad to get the good, and they collectively choose not to make waves. The tension in the book arises from Mengliu’s inability to reconcile himself to this. He knows he could stay in Swan Valley forever and live an uneventful, peaceful life, but the price would be his individuality and self-determination.
People in Swan Valley aren’t all Chinese. People have landed here from all over the world, so you’d think it would be cosmopolitan and vibrant, but it isn’t. It’s peaceful, but passionless. In Swan Valley, the inherent worth of the people has been sucked out of them by the state, but they don’t seem to mind: herein lies the political allegory.
Keyi’s writing pulls extreme focus on the protests in Beiping and on everyday life in Swan Valley, which contrast against scenes where Mengliu tries to escape Swan Valley to return to Beiping. At these points, the prose shifts to fantasy, communicating perfectly the sense of mental and physical difficulty Mengliu finds in pulling away, despite his overwhelming desire to.