cover image Heart Sutra

Heart Sutra

Yan Lianke, trans. from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. Grove, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-8021-6219-9

This intriguing satire from Yan (Hard Like Water) unfolds during a conference involving members of China’s five major religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam. Yahui, a young Buddhist jade nun, attends a one-year program at a government-sponsored religious training center in Beijing, where the director, Gong, hopes to write a book on the relationships and contradictions among the various belief systems. Gong arranges tug-of-war competitions between groups and works with a figure known as Nameless to blackmail donors to raise money for the training center. Yahui is on campus to assist her mentor, Jueyu, but after Jueyu suffers a stroke while witnessing a tug-of-war match, Yahui takes her place. Soon, she meets Daoist master Gu Mingzheng, who is searching for his birth father, and the duo form a bond that turns romantic. After Yahui’s convent collapses, she sets her sights on buying an apartment in the city, and she and Mingzheng, whose parental search is one of perpetual disappointment, consider starting a secular life together. While Yan’s similes are dubious and awkwardly translated (“the sky was as dark as though it were covered in a black cloth”), his barbs against organized religion frequently hit their targets (a Christian claims the Communist Party as one of Jesus’s disciples). Despite the rough spots, there is plenty to admire. Agent: Laura Susijn, Susijn Agency. (Mar.)