Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Fat Years - Chan Koonchung

The Fat Years is a multifaceted commentary on a near future China, which is largely indistinguishable from the modern variant confronting readers today. Due to an unparalleled economic crash, this China is now entering a period of massive growth, and acting out its apparent destiny as the world's latest superpower. Against this background of economic prosperity, a variety of themes and ideas are cast. First, there is the mystery plot, featured in the book blurb - a month appears to be missing from the collective memory of the Chinese, and none of them seem especially concerned by it; a few individuals seem to remember the events of this `missing month' and attempt to investigate what has occurred. The pacing here is deliberate, but the central conceit is quite clever. A word of warning: some of the key `mystery' details are accidentally revealed in the preface. Whilst the preface is fascinating, and worth a read, I'd recommend looking at it as an epilogue instead.

There is also a gentle romance plot playing out between several protagonists; it's slow, pleasant, and mature, and a thoroughly rewarding read. It served as a wonderful counter to the more popular `whirlwind romance' plots going around at the moment. Each of the participants has their own humanity and fragility exposed, and the prose that does this is wonderfully executed.

Balanced against both of these plots, and interweaving with them, are themes and commentaries on the state of this `future' China. The most easily accessible is the apparent complacency of the future Chinese population, who seem to accept with little argument that China is the best place in the world - even as local courts are forced to meet quota's for executions. There is something of a parallel to the late British Empire here, which may be intentional; the contrast between late-stage Imperialism and the future state of Communism is startling more for the similarities than the differences.

Our main protagonists are, by and large liberal (by the standards of their society), and the political message is less of a subtext in this book than an overarching theme. But the reader isn't left to suffer through polemic; whilst there are arguments presented about the intrusion of the state, the potential loss of liberty and civil rights, the author is careful to project several opposing viewpoints, arguments for stability over total freedom, arguments for pragmatism and economic success over a devotion to minority ideals. These certainly make interesting reading, from both sides, even if one is presented a little more sympathetically.

This isn't a political screed, but it is a highly politicised text, with the rumblings of policy, decisions, and philosophical musings pervading the fabric of the world that the author presents us - and it is all the better for that. `The Fat Years' isn't the easiest read, but it is extremely intriguing, and well worth the time invested. Try it - just be prepared to grapple with different societal mores and conceptualisations. And remember to read the preface last!

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