Thankfully, even dentists can mellow. In the 1990s, Yu began producing novels that, though still suffused with suffering, were leavened by a touch of Chekhovian compassion. Two of those novels, To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, first published in 1992 and 1995 respectively, were translated this fall into English for the first time. While less experimental than his previous works, these books encompass the collective tragedy of China's 20th century—and will help one of China's top writers gain the international recognition he deserves.
Chronicle follows the same narrative and historical arc as To Live. Xu Sanguan is a factory worker who argues with his wife, yells at his kids and curses like, well, a Chinese factory worker. But Xu manages to stay human in an increasingly inhuman world. The "blood merchant" of the title, he is willing to sell his plasma to keep his family fed and together—an eerily prescient scenario that evokes the recent real-life traumas in Henan province, where hundreds of thousands of peasants may have contracted HIV by selling their blood. Though Chronicle is at heart more hopeful than To Live, which sometimes reads like Chinese Beckett, the tragic necessity of sacrifice is never absent. The book's translator, Andrew Jones, compares its informal structure to traditional Chinese opera—but instead of the public celebration of life experienced in such art, Yu depicts a community that is forced by perverse Maoist mandates to revel in the destruction of its weakest members. Though Yu might no longer dream of performing unanesthetized dental work on his poor characters, he's ever willing to take a drill to the society that torments them.