Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ma Jian's "Red Dust" & "Stick Out Your Tongue": Book Review

In 1983, this dissident left a failing marriage, his daughter, and Beijing to wander China three years. This travelogue compresses and distorts time; it's matter-of-fact and mundane. Not a lot happens a lot. 

Similar to Kerouac's perigrinations, Ma Jian reads a lot of his predecessors who seek bohemian and countercultural lifestyles. He works as a holy man of sorts, a barber, a vendor of cleansing powder sold off as "French" dentifrice too strong for sensitive Chinese palates--so he tells one displeased customer the morning after! What he sees as his country changes from the Cultural Revolution's ravages to the beginnings of capitalism if not personal freedom (Democracy Wall he sees in an earlier, pre-Tiananmen Square period of expression followed by crackdown) is often grim.

On the Yangzi River, where the poet Li Bai wrote of clouds and monkeys, fertilizer plants and cement factories spew yellow waste. "Where the green slopes have been cut away, the earth shines like raw pigskin." (162) This river divides the bureaucratic north from the entrepreneurial south; neither seems to please him much. "The government has liberated the economy, the country is moving, and the south is moving faster than the north. The waters of the Yangzi look tired and abused. When man's spirit is in chains, he loses all respect for nature." (163-4) Like his counterpart Gao Xingjian who the same year started his own meandering, if more mystical, pilgrimage south that became the philosophical, Nobel Prize-winning, novel "Soul Mountain" (see my review), Ma Jian seeks to flee an urban China that wearies him with oppression, conformity, and inertia. (Compare my review of Colin Thubron's 1987 travelogue on his 1985 tour, "Behind the Wall.")

Yet, Ma Jian finds surprises beneath the surface. He talks to a complicated, deceptively ordinary-seeming girl he'd met earlier a few months ago when he runs into her (what are the odds?) in Shenzhen."You would never guess she has a child in nursery, a husband in prison, a married boyfriend, a girlfriend, a Canadian lover and an opium addiction." (225)

Flora Drew's translation reads well to convey such straightforward observations. Here, the colloquial, often unadorned style of Ma Jian's reports makes this narrative flow smoothly, if often without much excitement. It feels honest, for that. I found more interest as he made his way south, and, by 1985, into Tibet. The chapter "A Land with No Home" conveys a lot in a little, and much of it, I found from the section "The Woman and the Blue Sky," shows up nearly verbatim, if with subtle shifts of emphasis or description, as the first story with the same title in his short collection of five disturbing, detached tales from Tibet, "Stick Out Your Tongue." (The title refers to the natives' traditional greeting!)

His afterword to that follow-up 1998 edition (written in 1987, in English 2006 also via Drew) admits this small volume of stories roused tremendous controversy in China. It can be existential and it can be hopeful, in the Beat spirit. The religious temperament pervades as God and man, myth and legend tangle: in an eerie tale of initiation, the narrator confides: "I am writing down this story in the hope that I can start to forget it." (66) Revelation does not descend for Ma Jian either in his travelogue or his storytelling from Tibet. Monks live amidst Maoist slogans; Ma Jian himself gains pocket money by "painting propaganda murals outside the local radio station." (86) He does not comment on this apparent irony.

Graphic as these spare stories can be, if for me rather than the PRC censors they seemed far from "pornographic," a demystified and deromanticized version of life on the plateau. They may benefit from a prior reading of "Red Dust," at least the Tibetan chapter; without some grounding in dharma Tibetan-style, the concentrated allusions and contexts may elude readers.

"Stick" dismantles the natives as "gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed." Ma Jian notes that "in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and brutal as the rest of us. To idealise them is to deny them their humanity." (92)

Certainly, in "Red Dust" and "Stick Out Your Tongue," the steady, direct account of a very young woman, dying after a botched childbirth, in her sky burial--when a corpse is left for the vultures after the bones have been pounded down and mixed with dough to be fed to birds, and after the skin has been separated and the viscera and flesh dismembered after blessings have been recited--seems determined to get rid of any lingering attachment to delicacy. I found Ma Jian's account, reading it twice echoed in two versions, sensitive and dignified, although other readers were predictably revolted. For a sympathetic explanation in a book that I reviewed, compare Colin Thubron's trek around sacred Mount Kailash, "To a Mountain in Tibet (2011)."

Ma Jian doubts, even as a budding Buddhist, that his faith or that of his fellow adherents can save Tibet. Communists import greed: "As soon as a road is built, kindness vanishes." Values of one collective, perhaps communal and somewhat refined, civilization cannot withstand those of individualism masked as communism. "I came here hoping to see man saved by the Buddha's compassion, but in Tibet the Buddha cannot even save himself." (297) Ma Jian winds up distrusting Buddhism, and dismissing capitalism as well as Communism. No wonder that he left for Hong Kong the year he wrote these stories, fearing prison. He moved to Germany and he now lives in London.

He sees a pert woman's bosom jiggling as she shakes on a bus ride, with a "bent paper clip" holding her shirt in place instead of a button. This image reappears in "Stick," as does a character Sonam, in "Red Dust" half-Chinese, half-Tibetan and torn in loyalty; a skull-bowl's vividly imagined origins inspire another bold story; a third ends with a forlorn, supplicating young woman exposing her breast from under a market table, a scene first seen in "Red Dust." The oddness inherent to the fiction and the fact combines into a reflection on Tibet's uncertain future, and that of Ma Jian and his homeland where he must return to the great capital.

He concludes his "Red Dust" travels by going back to Beijing. "People are changing with the times. Everyone can see their paths. But society travels along an invisible road and no one can tell where it is going." (323) [Posted as two separate reviews in revised fashion to Amazon US & 5-21-11]


Tony Bailie said...

Like the sound of both these John. China and its vastness has long fascinated me. I wonder if in a country so huge and populous if it is easy for disaffected people like Ma Jian to simply up sticks and wander at will?

Fionnchú said...

On the one hand, Ma Jian picks up and heads off from the city to the countryside due to pressure from the authorities for his subversive opinions, so the move's both welcomed by him and imposed on him.

I recall from a Chinese roommate at UCLA (a survivor of the Cultural Revolution who was sent as a student from the city to the peasantry, who I knew around the same time that Ma's conducted his own internal exile), how names were easily taken on and discarded by adults as well as children in a nation where so many had the same ones--his was Min Han, for instance! I wonder if this flexibility assists those who want to blend in or vanish?

On the other hand, this being a "Democratic People's Republic," don't all PRC citizens have to register at where they are born, or perhaps their family's settlement? I have the sense this is required for those wishing to move from one place to another. Maybe it's a Bethlehem-via-Nazareth meme?