'They can’t afford burial plots. They’ve been separated from their families and uprooted from their ancestral homes. Unable to be mourned in the proper Chinese way, they’re fated to roam a “hazy, indistinct city” where snow swirls around their legs and they have the opportunity to reflect upon their lives and the circumstances of their deaths. The limping shades may then encounter the dead former friends and loved ones who also inhabit this characteristically Chinese mega-necropolis.
'Yu is the internationally celebrated author of “To Live” (which was made into a well-regarded 1994 film) as well as the epic satirical novel “Brothers,” which appeared in an English translation in 2009. In 2011, his collection of linked personal essays, “China in Ten Words,” recalled the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 democracy movement that met its violent end in Tiananmen Square, the historical memories of which have been all but suppressed by a modernizing nation lost in a frenzy of getting and spending. In “The Seventh Day,” he amplifies his critique of contemporary Chinese society, especially government corruption and his country’s headlong affair with consumerism.
'The novel opens with Yang Fei, a poor, freshly deceased tutor, late for his appointment at the local crematorium. There’s heavy traffic, and the 203 bus isn’t running. When he finally makes it to the facility, he discovers that the inequalities that separate the living continue to divide the dead. The V.I.P.s have their own waiting area, with comfy armchairs. Newly dead officials boast of burial plots that await them on mountain peaks with ocean views. Their “organic headstones” have already been ordered. Realizing that he doesn’t have adequate funerary garments or even an urn, Yang Fei declines to answer when his number is called. Instead, he leaves the crematorium. On a journey of post-mortem discovery, he is eventually reunited with his beloved father and reconciles with his ex-wife, who has just committed suicide.
'In Yang Fei’s limbo walk, the dead offer lurid accounts of corruption, police violence, political repression and the demolition of homes with their residents still inside, along with tales of the day-to-day mistreatment suffered by ordinary Chinese at the hands of the powerful and the wealthy. Some of these stories, which read as if they had been drawn from the country’s sensationalist press, provide occasions for broad satire — as when a cross-dressing prostitute steals into a police station to attack the cop who arrested and tortured him. The policemen defend their failure to protect a colleague: “People who arrive at the public security bureau with backpacks are normally there to deliver bribes. . . . Who could have known that this guy would pull out a knife?”
'“The Seventh Day” contains many instances of macabre comedy, though Allan H. Barr’s workmanlike translation is too wordy to deliver its best potential laugh lines. Here pathos rules. Yang Fei’s life, which begins in the toilet of a railway train and ends in a restaurant fire, has not been any easier than those of the other dead. His relationship with his father, marked by mutual self-sacrifice, left both men going to their deaths in tragic isolation.
'The conditions that regulate the novel’s troubled afterlife, requiring the unmourned to wander the netherworld, reflect a particularly Chinese concern about remembering and honoring one’s lost family members and ancestors. In “The Seventh Day,” a materialistic, greedy, increasingly impersonal society has made these obligations difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill. For many, this fantasy may be Yu’s most devastating critique of the new Chinese reality.'