‘In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal.’
An old man and a blind dog trying to survive in a terrible drought in rural China. The old man didn’t leave when the other villagers left:
‘I’m seventy-two years old, and would surely die of exhaustion if I tried to walk for three days. If I’m going to die either way, I’d prefer to die in my own village.’
The Elder and the dog he calls Blindy set out to survive. A corn seed has germinated, and the Elder tries to nurture it. His hope is to harvest corn seed for the future, when people return to the village. He and Blindy work together: The Elder bringing water to the seedling, Blindy guarding it from the rats that want to eat it. The two of them, when the other food runs out and they’ve recovered all the corn seeds from the rats nests, kill and eat the rats.
‘The Elder said, You can starve the sky and you can starve the earth, but you certainly can’t starve this old man.’
The Elder must walk further to find water when the well runs dry. He has a terrifying encounter with wolves which he survives. He keeps bringing back the water, but it takes longer as he grows weaker. He has weighed the rays of the sun, to work out the arithmetic of starvation and survival. He concludes that the only way that the seedling can survive is if either he or the dog becomes fertiliser for it.
The Elder tosses a coin. He loses the toss. He lies in the grave he has dug and asks the dog to bury him.
‘In the end, the only people left were seven men from seven of the village’s households.’
I was led to this novella by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers Lit Blog and highly recommend it. I remember reading about the disastrous impact of The Great Leap Forward when millions of Chinese starved to death in The Great Famine.
This fable unfolds over ninety-seven pages. It is both powerful and unforgettable: the relentless drought; the desperation for food and water; and The Elder’s determination to try to grow the seedling, to secure corn seed for a future he knows he will not be part of.
And now I need to seek out more of Yan Lianke’s work.