Yu Hua's novel "The Seventh Day" is a political allegory for life — and death — experienced in the chaos of a rapidly changing modern China.
Yu Hua, whose life and writing have been shaped by living though the 10-year Cultural Revolution, tells his story through Yang Fei, a recently deceased man who perished in an explosion. When he reports to the crematorium, Yang Fei soon realizes that the informal economic caste system ever present in Chinese life also applies in death. When another dead soul asks how many ovens there are, the attendant answers, "Two — one import and one domestic-brand. The import is reserved for VIPs — you'll be using the domestic make."
Yang Fei, who can't afford to be cremated, decides to venture on a kind of purgatorial, seven-day walkabout of his past life in the land of the unburied. He searches for the souls of former neighbors, his ex-wife and his adopted father, a railroad brakeman who found him abandoned as a newborn on the train tracks. The journey more often reveals the dark belly of modern China with its overnight razing of neighborhoods, its corrupt and arrogant government officials, its coverups of tragedies and the desperation of its citizens who commit suicide or sell their internal organs.
The organ merchants seem especially wicked, employing veterinarians to do the surgeries in unsanitary hovels and risking the lives of the "donors." Still, selling a kidney was a temporary way out of poverty.
"They were looking forward eagerly to life afterward, when they could buy a smart set of clothes, an Apple phone, stay a few nights in a swank hotel, and eat some meals in an upscale restaurant."
Yang Fei eventually circles back to the crematorium, where he finds his deceased father working as an usher, a skeleton directing skeletons, proving that on the seventh day there is no rest. Fei's week of ghostly wandering has taught him one truth about life after death in China. "There is no poverty here and no riches; there's no sorrow and no pain; no grievances and no hate. … Here everyone finds equality in death."
If one can afford it, that is.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of three books, most recently "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River." His next book, "Going Driftless," will be published in May.