Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Ma Jian, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

Red-dust

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 336 pages; 2010. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

I’m not a huge fan of travelogues, but I decided to read Red Dust based on the strength of Ma Jian’s superb novel Beijing Coma and Max Cairnduff’s excellent review.

I read it on my Kindle while in China last month, and found much of Jian’s descriptions, particularly of places I had been such as the ancient city of Xi’an and the Ghost City of Fengdu, very authentic.

The book chronicles Jian’s travels throughout China during the 1980s, a time in which travel for the average Chinese citizen was banned without the necessary paperwork.

He claims to go travelling because: “I want to see my country, every river, every mountain. I want to see different people, different lives. […] I just want to know it, see it with my own eyes.” But that is the sanitised version.

Before he hit the road, Jian was an official photographer for the propaganda department of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. He spent most of his free time as an artist. His house, a “crumbling old shack”, in Beijing was used by fellow creatives — writers, painters, poets and dissidents — as a secret meeting point.

He was labelled as a “questionable youth” by his bosses, who believed his “spare time activities” indicated he had been poisoned by “bourgeois Spiritual Pollution”. He escaped the clutches of Party Officials waging their Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution by forging his own travel documents and heading for the desert. (Just as well, because within a matter of years more than a million people were arrested and nearly 200,000 executed as part of the Campaign.)

It was 1983 and he was 30 years old. He had hoped to find spiritual enlightenment along the way, but as most travellers are wont to discover, Jian ended up learning a great deal about his country — good, bad and ugly — and the people who lived in it.

He was on the move for three years before he decided to return to Beijing.

Initially he revels in the freedom that travel provided:

Men are like swallows, when autumn arrives they long to fly away. Life moves with the same rhythm as the sky and the earth. It changes as sun changes into moon and day into night. If they told me to return to Beijing now, I would charge straight into those ramparts.  I would rather crack my skull and die than go back to moulder in that dank city.

But later, after some close encounters and a constant struggle to earn enough cash to get by, he realises that freedom is not the be all and end all. “Walking through the wilds freed me from worries and fears, but this is not real freedom,” he wrote. “You need money to be free.”

While I found Red Dust an easy read and enjoyed discovering more about China through Jian’s eyes, I did have some problems with the book.

The first — which can be dismissed as my own fault, rather than the author’s — was Jian’s narrative voice. I simply did not like it, because it often came across as arrogant and sexist (not dissimilar, in fact, to his fictional Dai Wei in Beijing Coma).

The second is simply the repetition of Jian arriving in a new place (usually broke and worried that the authorities will discover his papers are illegal), befriending someone, finding out about the local culture and then leaving. Once or twice is interesting, but when the bulk of the narrative is just relating a succession of these encounters, as different as each may be, it does become wearing. (Max Cairnduff’s review also finds this a major failing.)

Of course, that’s not enough to dismiss the book completely. There’s a lot in Red Dust which provides food for thought, particularly as it is set just as China’s economy was beginning to open up thanks to Deng Xiaoping‘s reforms. Jian thought that this would help his people, until he meets many rural folk who tell him otherwise. One chap says:

“A free economy won’t make bicycles or sewing machines grow from the earth. […] All the young men have left to find work in the cities. They come back at Spring Festival with new watches and big bags of clothes.”

I’d love to know how opinions and attitudes have changed in the 25 years since Jian went on his travels, but sadly Jian will never be able to retrace his steps to find out. He’s no longer welcome in his homeland and has been resident in London since 1999. His books are banned in China.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Fiction, literary fiction, Ma Jian, Vintage

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian

Beijing-Coma

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 666 pages; 2009. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

It’s been a very long time since I read a novel that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma is by no means a perfect book — it’s far too lengthy for a start and the lead character is arrogant and annoying by turns — but it is a powerful, compelling read, a story that bears witness to a shocking event that the Chinese authorities would rather you did not know about: the Tianamen Square massacre of 1989.

Although the book is fictional, it is based on first-hand experience and, from what I can gather having now read this wikipedia entry, is historically accurate. Only the names have been changed.

Beijing Coma remains banned in China, along with everything else that Ma Jian has written. (He now lives in London with his translator wife, Flora Drew.)

At more than 600-pages long, it requires a major commitment from the reader, but it is worth the effort. It is a deeply moving account of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work. But in Ma Jian’s hands this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective.

As Dai Wei lays in a bed in his mother’s apartment waiting to die — he was felled by a bullet during the military crackdown — he takes in everything happening around him. Much of the time he reminisces about his past, and through this we learn of his childhood growing up in 1980s Communist China, where his father was labelled a “rightist” and sentenced to 20 years in a prison farm, and his mother was a fine, upstanding citizen who toed the Party line.

Later, he escapes the claustrophobia of the family home to attend university, where he spends more time chasing girls than studying. He eventually gets swept up in the idealism of the pro-democracy movement and finds himself head of security during the protests which begin in April 1989.

He recalls the student movement’s slow disintegration, as boisterous enthusiasm and idealism makes way for in-fighting, internal power struggles and corruption all because it lacked a truly united front.

But Dai Wei’s memories of the past are constantly interrupted by events happening around him in his mother’s cramped and shabby apartment. Because he was injured during a massacre that the Government denies ever happened, he is not allowed medical treatment. It is up to his mother, as sole carer, to do what she can to help him: she gets drugs and IV equipment on the black market, and occasionally has documents forged to allow him to be treated in hospital. It is a perilous, on-the-edge and inhumane existence for both parties.

His mother is anxious for her son to die to relieve her of this terrible burden — and she makes no bones about telling him this, not knowing that despite Dai Wei’s vegetative state he can hear everything she says.

At times the narrative feels like a dark comedy (there’s one instance when Dai Wei’s urine is seen as a miracle cure and people come from far and wide to buy it from his mother’s apartment), but for the most part it is a damning indictment of China’s human rights record.

It is also a fascinating insight into the massive economic and physical changes that Beijing underwent between 1989 and the 2008 Olympic Games, as old buildings were torn down to make way for modern ones, and local residents took advantage of new investment.

But for Dai Wei’s mother this change is not welcome. As she juggles her son’s medical needs with her own struggle to survive, she is ordered by the Government to leave her apartment so that it can be demolished to make way for new buildings as part of the Beijing Olympic bid. Her refusal to move, to succumb to the Government’s demands, not only shows how much her attitude to the Government has changed (she was once a model Communist citizen), it provides a glimpse of a country thundering ahead so fast that only the fittest, strongest and most adaptable can survive.

These dual narratives are interleaved in a seamless fashion, so that only the tense — past for Dei Wei’s memories, present for events happening around his sick bed — orientates the reader.

A word of caution, however: the level of detail in this novel may be off-putting to some, because Ma Jian records the minutiae of student life and every tiny step of the protest movement. I admit that I did, at times, wonder if it was worth me ploughing ahead. I’m pleased that I persisted, because the sheer weight of the information presented builds momentum. By the time you reach the horrifying climax — the tanks rolling in and the soldiers mowing down innocent bystanders — it’s like being hit over the head by a tonne of bricks, as the full force of all that detail rains down on you. It is, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic endings to a novel I’ve ever read.

Beijing Coma held my attention for an entire month. It is a brave and audacious book, brimming with idealism, chaos and horror. If you like your fiction rooted in fact, with a choppy, fast-paced narrative, and a conclusion that leaves you reeling, then do add this one to the list.