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'Heart Sutra' is a satire that skewers religious institutions without mocking faith

Cover of Heart Sutra
Grove Press

Every year, when readers and bookies begin asking who is likely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Chinese novelist Yan Lianke appears in the conversation.

In 2022, the British gambling aggregator NicerOdds gave him a 25-to-1 chance, the same as Edna O'Brien, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Scholastique Mukasonga — though lower than Annie Ernaux, who won. Guessing who the Academy will pick and why is — as the odds over the years have shown — a fool's errand. But Yan does seem like an ideal candidate. A former Army propagandist in his mid-60s, he has earned global renown for his sprawling body of work, which includes a memoir, many novels and novellas, and heaps of short stories and literary criticism.

At first, his writing was met with equal warmth at home — but now his work is subject to a de facto ban tough enough that his latest novel, Heart Sutra, translated into English by Carlos Rojas, has not been released in China at all.

Heart Sutra is a warm-hearted, if not gentle, satire that skewers religious institutions without mocking faith itself. Yan treats the deities of China's major religions — Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and both Protestant and Catholic Christianity — as quiet, omnipresent participants in the novel's events, which range from slapstick comedy to shocking violence. Heart Sutra starts out seeming like a romantic comedy; by its end, it has moved through absurdity, darkness, and body horror into a strange and flickering form of hope. All this variety lets Yan, a career-long satirist, avoid the trap most common to his chosen form. Satirical novels too often start and end on the same note, which effectively guarantees a loss of momentum. Not true in Heart Sutra. Guessing its next development is no likelier than guessing who will win the next Nobel — and it is a deeply satisfying read as a result.

Yan often gets named as the inventor of mythorealism, a strain of modernism that, he writes, eschews easy "access to truth and reality, ... instead it relies on imaginings, allegories, myths, legends, dreamscapes, and magical transformations that grow out of the soil of daily life and social reality." Both myth and allegory are key to Heart Sutra, whose main narrative is cut with a gorgeous set of original papercuts telling a transgressively non-canonical tale in which the bodhisattva Guanyin marries the Daoist philosopher Laozi. In life, the papercuts were made by the artist Shang Ailan; in the novel, their creator is an 18-year-old Buddhist nun named Yahui. She has come to Beijing to study at the National Politics University's temporary religious training center on behalf of her master, Jueyu shifu, who has a stroke while watching one of the interfaith tug-of-war contests on which the center's scheming head, Director Gong, insists. Quickly, though, she gets distracted by a romance with a young Daoist student named Gu Mingzheng, attending tug-of-war to "try to catch a glimpse of [him]" and sneaking off with him whenever possible, including on her visits to the hospitalized Jueyu shifu. Her papercuts reflect her growing desire to leave her order and launch a secular life with him — and, as that dream falls apart, the papercuts, too, take a turn.

Yahui's romance with Mingzheng is both sweet and vivid but mainly it serves to draw readers into the novel. Before long, Mingzheng, guided by a creepy and powerful man known only as Nameless, gets sucked into an ill-fated search for his father, who he's long been told was a political or military leader. Without him, Yahui starts experimenting with other facets of secular life. In one of the novel's loveliest scenes, she secretly eats her first-ever meat bun, which tastes "as dark red as the lean meat itself, like overflowing pink clouds filling her palate and throat." Although eating the bun is a transgression, each bite reminds her of "reciting each word as a sacred sutra" — a thought that sets her up to transgress much more. Her gradual detachment from religious life is Heart Sutra's true story. As Yahui grows less devoted to her status as a nun, she gets more able to see the small cruelties and hypocrisies around her. She also begins fumbling through major worldly transactions like attempting to borrow money to buy an apartment, which leads her directly to Nameless' unsavory world. Meanwhile, subplots swirl around Jueyu shifu, whose health is supernaturally tied to the tug-of-war matches; Director Gong, whose greed and machinations are endless; Imam Tian and Pastor Wang, a pair of dangerously purehearted students at the training center; and the occasional divine appearance.

Yan packs a lot of events into Heart Sutra, aided by his authoritative narrative style and easy ability to skip through time. His lack of constraint lets the novel lope easily through difficult territory, readily drawing the connections between religion, sex, and corruption that most of us sense exist, but might struggle to pin down. It also makes even the toughest parts of Heart Sutra entertaining. Not much ends well here, and yet Yan's storytelling has a luminous, irrepressible quality. In an author's note, he writes of hoping this would be a "light novel about the kisses and secret love that appear in that instant when holiness and secularity meet." Light it is not but, in its darkness, it shines.

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