The Explosion Chronicles

Yan Lianke, trans. Carlos Rojas

October 4, 2016 
The following is from Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles. The author of numerous short-story collections and novels, including The Four Books, Lenin's Kisses, Serve the People!, and Dream of Ding Village, he was twice a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize and was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Man Asian Literary Prize, and the Prix Femina Étranger. He was recently awarded the Franz Kafka Prize.

At first Mayor Kong had granted the American the most favorable policies and the prettiest girls, and brought in some master chefs from Beijing, who even imported their MSG from kitchens in Southeast Asia, but even after having enjoyed the fine food and having slept with the girls, this group of a dozen or so Americans still wanted to build their car factories on the coast.

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The negotiation had taken place in the conference room of the county government building, around a large elliptical conference table that reminded people of the American CEO’s enormous belly. In the center of the table were some plants and flowers, like the hair on the body of that sixty-year-old CEO. On one side of the table sat Kong Mingliang, with more than a dozen deputy county mayors, industry bureau directors, and beautiful female interpreters he had hired for the occasion. On the other side of the table sat the American businessmen. Two girls who had gone to bed with the Americans the night before were off to one side preparing coffee and Chinese tea. When the two girls went to pour the American CEO some more water, they tossed him a smile—their eyes bloodshot and their faces still covered in makeup from not having slept the previous night. But the Americans, after spending that previous night exerting themselves on top of the girls, couldn’t be rinsed clean by the coffee. They yawned while also smiling at the girls, and the CEO announced, “Oriental girls are as beautiful as flowers, while Western ones are as coarse as grass.” But what he said next left the mayor so disappointed that he immediately wanted to kneel down in front of him. The CEO added, “But no matter how good Chinese girls may be, they still can’t compare with the girls I saw in Vietnam. I’ll never forget them, and will never again experience the feeling I had when sleeping with Vietnamese girls during the war.” The American looked at everyone, then concluded sorrowfully, “It’s really a pity, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to establish my car factory in Explosion.”

Mingliang stood across the table two meters in front of the CEO and saw that the American’s mottled face was crawling with tropical fire ants, ladybugs, and Vietnamese dung beetles. His cavernous belly, however, was covered with the dollar bills and gold bars that everyone in the world desires. Mingliang said, “Then, how about if tonight, rather than giving you two Chinese girls, I instead give you four Vietnamese ones?” He continued, “In order to grant you Americans a heavenly existence, how about if I build you a Vietnamese-style gambling parlor?

“…All of your workers at the level of technicians or above will be permitted to sleep with girls free, and Explosion will cover their gambling losses.

“…What if I issue a directive ordering the people of Explosion to nod and bow whenever they see any of you Americans?”

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Finally, Mingliang said, “Let’s go! I want to take you back to the Vietnam from forty years ago.” As he was saying this, he wrote a note and asked someone to deliver it. Then he took those former US soldiers, most of whom had fought in Vietnam, and led them out of the county government building. After crossing several old streets, they reached a newly constructed street. Following a directive by the county mayor, all of the walls in the county had been covered in green to resemble a forest from the south, and had been painted with images of Vietnam’s rivers and palm trees. The men of Balou were wearing the same coarse white gowns and wide-leg pants that Vietnamese peasants had worn forty years earlier, while the women were wearing homespun shirts and dresses, and bamboo-leaf pointed sun hats, and they were carrying bamboo baskets. Peddlers selling vegetables, meat, and French bread had built roadside shacks that featured a combination of Vietnamese and Yunnan elements. In this way, the entire street was designed to be a precise replica of a Vietnam street from forty years earlier. Even the people pedaling three-wheeled carts and pushing wheelbarrows had traditional Vietnamese large-wheeled carts and wooden-wheeled wheelbarrows. To the Americans’ astonishment, a group of several dozen women from Balou walked up, chatting and laughing, and appeared to take the Americans’ presence in this Vietnam as quite commonplace. While the Americans stared in astonishment, the women glanced at them as though they were ordinary neighbors.

“In this group, do you see the girls you remember from when you were based in Vietnam?” Mingliang asked the American CEO.

Another dozen or so Vietnamese girls walked over, and again the Americans stood on the side of the road staring at them.

Following the seventh group of Vietnamese girls, the eighth group consisted of the same girls who had been in the first group. By this point, the Americans arrived at a small village on the edge of the town. That village featured a tragic scene following the conclusion of America’s Vietnam War. There were houses that had been bombed by the Americans and smoldering cowsheds. There were rotting corpses lying along the fields, and an old woman was sitting in the yard of her collapsed house. The woman’s clothing was ragged, her hair was gray, and when she saw the Americans walking over she appeared surprised and uneasy, as her teeth started chattering loudly. When the Americans reached this postwar village, they stood there without moving. The potbellied CEO had a nostalgic expression, and when he heard the sound of an American helicopter taking off or landing, he turned away from the old woman and looked east. There, he saw a stone-filled Vietnamese riverbed, and in the man-made tropical rain forest snakes were crawling amid the painted palm trees. Because it was so quiet, the river sounded like a barrage of gunfire in the distance.

The Americans stopped in front of the river.

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A solitary eagle soared over from what appeared to be a fire-filled sky.

Standing beneath the burning sky, each of them was parched with thirst. As they were about to lean down and drink directly from the river, a curious Vietnamese boy ran over from a smoldering house. Then there was a loud explosion, as the young boy stepped on a mine. A lifelike rubber arm flew into the air and landed right in front of the American who was bending over to drink some water.

The entire river quickly turned bloodred, and the American who was drinking from the river broke out in a cold sweat and quickly rejoined the rest of the group.Next, they proceeded up the river, with Kong Mingliang leading the way like a Vietnamese peasant in wartime, crossing back and forth from one side of the river to the other, standing in the middle of that jungle made from plastic foam, wire, and pigment, then returning to a rope bridge over the river and standing there for a while. In front of them there appeared a small Vietnamese town. The town had American military barracks, Vietnamese restaurants, and cafés, as well as dance halls and brothels designed specifically for US soldiers on leave. Next to the brothel there were beer halls and gambling halls with the roulette that Americans at the time were particularly fond of playing. There were Explosion men dressed as US servicemen walking up and down the street, as though they were looking for something. There were several girls from Guangxi, who had been brought over to Explosion because they looked Vietnamese, with light yellow skin, flattened noses, high foreheads, and sunken eyes but an attractive gaze. They were wearing translucent gowns and were sitting in front of the brothel chatting happily. When the girls saw the real Americans approaching, they smiled and waved. A sixteen- or seventeen-year-old Vietnamese girl emerged from that gaggle of prostitutes and stared at the group of Americans with their enormous bellies. She stood coquettishly in front of them and looked at them shyly. At this point a couple of older prostitutes walked over from behind the younger one and said,

“Commander, war is tough. Come in and enjoy yourself.”

They caressed the younger woman’s head and shoulders and said,

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“She is not even seventeen yet. You have come here from America, and we Orientals prize newness…and particularly the deflowering of virgins.”

The two older prostitutes pushed the teenage Guangxi girl up to the hulking Americans and said,

“War is hell, and you never know if you’ll survive from one day to the next. If you enjoy this girl tonight, then even if you were to die on the battlefield tomorrow, you would still be able to die without regrets.”

The Americans entered a building labeled Garden of Red Delights. Bashful young girls led the potbellied men into the brothel’s innermost rooms. They went inside, closed the door, opened the small Vietnamese-style window, then turned on the Vietnamese-style rotating fan mounted on the wall—and after half an hour, all of the guns in the Vietnamese town discharged at once. After the American soldiers emerged from their respective rooms, Vietnamese guerrilla fighters and soldiers from the American barracks proceeded to do battle in the town’s streets, shooting at one another. There were several American corpses, which the Vietnamese guerrillas had hung from the branches of a nearby willow tree. After the guerrillas emerged from the center of town, the American soldiers rushed over from the barracks and proceeded to search the town, executing Vietnamese soldiers as casually as one might slaughter a chicken. By evening, the entire street was lined with piles of dead and wounded Vietnamese, their blood flowing like a river toward the Americans’ feet. After emerging from the brothel, the Americans proceeded to a beer hall, but the foamy red Vietnamese blood flowing past the brothel also followed them there. They emerged from the beer hall and proceeded to a French patisserie, but the blood from the beer hall, the brothel, and the patisserie kept following them around, pushing them into a public square in the center of town. It turned out that the entire square was filled with the bodies of the Vietnamese that had been brought here from throughout the town, including dead and wounded, old and young, men and women. A helmet-wearing American was forcing Vietnamese men to bring all of the corpses into the square and pile them up. The ground was soaked as though it had been raining blood. In order to get away from these mountains of corpses and rivers of blood, the Americans circled through a bamboo-filled hill behind the town. But just as they were about to sit down to rest and recall what had just happened, they saw hundreds or even thousands of Vietnamese running out of the bamboo forest and kneeling down in front of them. The Vietnamese started shouting in unison,

“After having killed so many of us, you should come here to invest! You should come here to invest!”

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Next, a group of Vietnamese men and women, young and old, emerged from who knows where. They knelt down and began weeping and shouting, “Let bygones be bygones! Why don’t you establish your automobile electronics factories here? As long as you invest here, those dead Vietnamese will overlook the fact that you invaded and murdered them.”

They shouted, “For the sake of your conscience, you should invest your money here.”

They promised, “If you open a factory and start an industry here, we will give you our last baguette and our last cup of Vietnamese coffee.”

They kowtowed to the Americans and said, “You should invest here—not just for our sake, but also for America’s. Each of our households has lost someone to the Americans, and in every household there is a table with memorial tablets inscribed with the names of our ancestors, brothers, and sisters whom you killed. If you invest here and help us to become prosperous, you will thereby be absolved of your sins. On the other hand, if you invest somewhere else, your conscience will never be clear, and after you die your souls will not go to heaven.”

Finally, thousands upon thousands of residents of Explosion gathered under the light of the setting sun. They were all wearing Vietnamese clothing and were carrying the bodies of people who had been shot and killed by the Americans, and embracing the bodies of children killed in war. They were kneeling down together and loudly exhorting the American industrialists, saying,

“For the sake of your conscience, you should invest here!

“For the sake of your God and your sense of justice, you should let your money take root here.”

Darkness fell.

After darkness fell, the American industrialists signed an investment agreement with Explosion for tens of billions of yuan. For the sake of their collective conscience, they decided to select Explosion and its outskirts as the site for their car factory, electronics factory, and hundreds of other production companies.


From THE EXPLOSION CHRONICLES. Used with permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2016 by Yan Lianke. Translation copyright © by Carlos Rojas.

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