The idea of memory tends to be ever present in the minds of people who live in countries where the state tells them what to remember and what to forget. In Chan Koonchung's political science fiction thriller The Fat Years, the month of February 2011 has gone missing from people's minds in China and it's up to an assorted group of misfits to find out what happened to it.Not that the population as a whole seems to be particularly bothered. In fact, quite the reverse. The year is 2013, China is rich and its people are basking in the warm glow of a nation suddenly propelled to global pre-eminence by the collapse of its western competitors. In one scene early on, Old Chen, the book's main character, actually bursts into tears at the thought of China's success and the Communist Party's benevolence. It's a scene very reminiscent of that towards the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four when a chastened Winston Smith cries with love for Big Brother. But where Winston cried salty tears into his raw gin, Old Chen weeps discreetly into his Starbucks Lychee Black Dragon Latte. These are, after all, the fat years.
Old Chen bears quite a strong resemblance to the author (Chan's name in Mandarin is Chen Guanzhong). Now resident in Beijing, from where he has pursued a number of successful media interests, Chan is a successful media entrepreneur and filmmaker whose family emigrated to Hong Kong from Shanghai after the Communist Party took power in 1949.
As a wealthy and cosmopolitan fellow, he could choose to live anywhere. He prefers the Big Dumpling, apparently, because that is where the decisions are made.
Indeed, the China of The Fat Years is the China dreamed of by the men who rule it: mushrooming prosperity, social and political tranquillity, global preponderance and a population ready to burst with self-satisfaction and bumptious patriotism when not at the wonderfully easy daily business of making money. Formal censorship mechanisms are present but barely necessary because intellectual curiosity seems to have curled up and died of its own accord.Old Chen is a journalist and author, but finds himself too distracted to do much writing. Instead he wanders about, savouring Beijing's atmosphere of weightless prosperity. And it is in these wanderings that he encounters the people determined to uncover the mystery of the missing month. One is an old flame, Little Xi, whose family once ran a restaurant where intellectuals gathered and dreamed of change in the heady days before the Tiananmen massacre. Before that, she was a junior magistrate who resigned in disgust at the excesses of one of China's regular "strike hard" campaigns. Another, Fang Caodi, is a constantly travelling free spirit raised in a Daoist temple. He has been everywhere, seen everything, and is relentlessly, dangerously curious.They represent trends marginalised both in Chan's idealised version of China's future and in the People's Republic of today, namely the earnest, reforming liberal and the ungovernable, wandering truth seeker. More crudely, they represent justice and freedom, and together they pull Chen, a self-described objective observer, towards the rediscovery of what happened in the fateful month.
The official story is that the western economies collapsed at the beginning of February 2011, just as China reoriented its economic policy away from export dependency and towards domestic consumption, enabling its people to surf the economic chasm on a tide of consumer spending while suddenly finding themselves the inheritors of global political hegemony.
But there are scraps of information that tell a different story, one of panic, fear and chaos, incessant rumours of economic collapse, of truckloads of soldiers entering villages and the disappearance of awkward and inconvenient persons.The mystery is cleared up when the group kidnap He Dongsheng, a high-ranking Communist Party cadre and old friend of Chen, who for no particularly good reason decides to tell all in a long, intermittently fascinating but undeniably rambling testimony that takes up the last 40 pages of the book.