Tag Archives: China

Life under the regime

Maybe it’s from growing up during the Cold War, but I always imagined life in an authoritarian state to be like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, laying bricks in the Siberian cold, your stomach empty, your fingertips frozen. Or perhaps like Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Big Brother’s thought police around every corner and rats thrust in your face. Or the solitary confinement of Darkness at Noon, facing daily interrogations until you finally confess, only to be marched out into the prison yard and shot.

Those are indeed possibilities, especially for dissidents. But what is life like for the multitude of ordinary citizens who must adapt to a system where the paternalistic authority of the state determines the most intimate decisions? How do individuals respond? How do they survive?

Two novels written close together in time but about two very different regimes and cultures give some insight into these questions.

In Ha Jin’s Waiting, a novel about life in China from the 1960s to the 1980s, we have one answer. Ha Jin came to the U.S. in 1985 to study English literature at Brandeis University. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, he decided to stay here. Like those extraordinary exiles before him, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, Jin chose to write in English. Waiting, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1999.

WaitingWaiting is a quiet tale that slyly criticizes China’s post-revolutionary society. It’s the story of a repressed love affair between an army doctor and a nurse in a provincial hospital. The doctor, Lin Kong, is a conscientious, ambitious and educated man who loves books, even prohibited ones from Russia and America. He is also married, an arranged marriage made at his parents’ request, to an uneducated peasant woman. His wife still lives in his native village, tending their small farm and raising their daughter. But when the doctor meets Manna Wu, a single nurse who borrows a book and responds in kind to his polite, never forward, always self-conscious friendship, a flame is kindled.

At the time their relationship begins, in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, an affair would be considered illegal as well as immoral, a non-conforming action that risked punishment, possibly transfer to a harsher assignment and certainly career suicide. Yet, per the hospital commissar’s arbitrary rules, divorce is only permissible after eighteen years of separation. Simply walking outside the hospital grounds with a fellow worker of the opposite sex is not allowed. Discreetly, the couple take this risk to nurture, through several cycles of intensity and misunderstanding, what becomes an eighteen-year platonic relationship.

Even then, their wait isn’t over. Each year the doctor goes home to ask his wife for a divorce. Each time she agrees, but then at court she balks, stumbling under the provincial magistrate’s interrogation and her own mixed emotions or bending to the social pressure exerted by her brother who seeks monetary damages from the doctor.

Waiting is based on a true story Jin heard while serving in the army. He writes in a plain style that owes much to Hemingway, but the story is pure Turgenev or Chekhov. Jin subtly evokes the stranglehold of a political system that values social strictures and the dictates of revolutionary idealism over individual freedom and happiness.

At times you want to shake the characters for not taking action, for not asserting themselves, for living so long with their repressed feelings, for wasting years and years of potential happiness. And then you realize, yes, this is what it must be like to live in a society that does not see beyond the collective. The ending of Waiting is as ambivalent and as frustrating as you might expect.

Dirty Havana TrilogyDirty Havana Trilogy (1998) by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez voices a different kind of frustration. Gutiérrez still lives in Cuba and writes in Spanish, although censorship prevents his books from being published there. (This novel is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer into a slangy English that is pitch perfect.) Gutiérrez depicts life in Cuba during the “crisis” of the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union has collapsed, ending its subsidies to the Castro regime, and the Cuban economy is in utter shambles.

The trilogy is really a three-part collection of short stories told from the largely autobiographical point of view of one Pedro Juan, a radio journalist who quit his job because he was not allowed to report the truth. Pedro Juan lives in a shack on the rooftop of a crumbling apartment building amid the decay, corruption and filth of Havana. With bawdy defiance, he chronicles his efforts to survive, whether that’s working as a garbage man or a janitor, stealing lobsters at night from state-owned traps, or serving as a pimp, a gigolo, a reseller of junk, or a dope peddler.

No matter what job he cobbles together, the overarching focus of his life is sexual gratification, and because of that Gutiérrez has been compared to Henry Miller. But in Gutiérrez’s case, the profligate sex is clearly a metaphor for life under the regime: if you aren’t screwing someone, you’re getting screwed.

With Gutiérrez the political criticism is always near the surface. The city he paints, the lives he describes, are transformed by his defiant sarcasm, visceral earthiness and sexual bravado, but what he reveals is devastating: the willingness of desperate people to prostitute themselves in every way imaginable in order to survive as the state fails to provide for even the most basic needs. This portrait—not the tourist photos of vintage cars and quaint art-deco mansions along the Malecón—is the disastrous endgame of the revolution. A world where the only escapes from poverty, starvation, violence and death are sex, superstition, rum and the carnal rhythms of salsa.

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Stick out your tongue

image001I had never heard of Ma Jian until I read his story, “The Woman and the Blue Sky,” in the Paris Review in 2005. As soon as I finished it, I ordered the book it came from, Stick Out Your Tongue. But, for some reason, I didn’t get around to reading it until now.

Stick Out Your Tongue is a slim volume of five spare stories about Tibet. Originally published in Chinese in 1987, state censors  denounced the collection as “a vulgar, obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots.” They accused Ma Jian of being sex obsessed and greedy for money. “No one must be allowed to read this book. All copies…must be confiscated and destroyed immediately.” That demand only increased the book’s popularity on the black market, but it finished Ma Jian’s career as a writer in China.

As he explains in the afterward, he went into self-imposed exile. First in Hong Kong, then Germany, and finally the United Kingdom. What was the point of remaining in China if he could never again publish what he wrote?

Ma Jian traveled throughout Tibet in 1985, and these stories come from that experience. Already Tibet was changing under China’s control, but these stories describe a dirt poor society of nomadic shepherds, villagers, tribesmen and monks in the high mountain plateaus and grasslands far beyond Lhasa. The people preserve a deep reverence for traditions and a Buddhist sense of fate. There is a mystical, magical  and often superstitious side to their logic and actions, but what emerges in every story is the brutality of life there and resignation toward death. Perhaps this is why the censors were troubled.

Tibet: An elderly Tibetan women holding a pray...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Woman and the Blue Sky,” for example, is a haunting story told in the first person. In a high mountain pass, a traveler stays the night with a Chinese soldier who lives alone guarding the military telephone line. The guard tells of his love for a Tibetan woman who has just died with her unborn child still inside her. The traveler gets to observe the sacred funeral rite for the young woman. With the calm detachment of a photographer, he describes how her two husbands, who are brothers, cut up the body to feed the scavenging birds until there is nothing left.

The powerful stories of Stick Out Your Tongue remind me of the best of Anton Chekhov and Juan Rulfo, who captured the harsh realities of Russian and Mexican peasants in historic moments of great societal change. Deceptively spare in style, these stories are complex and deeply moving. The translator, Flora Drew, has done an astounding job rendering them into beautiful English prose.

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J.G. Ballard’s vision of modern war

After Anthony Burgess praised it, I picked up J. G. Ballard’s novel The Unlimited Dream Company and gave it a go but never finished it. I simply didn’t connect with what appeared to be a book-length dream sequence. I could tell Ballard possessed enormous talent, a fascination with technology (airplanes in particular) and a sharp understanding of human psychology, but there wasn’t enough character development for this realist.

Empire of the Sun was Ballard’s genre-breaking novel, making him known beyond the aficionados of speculative and science fiction. Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation only brought Ballard wider fame—and well deserved it was. This “autobiographical” novel did what the earlier book failed to do: ground the author’s vivid imagination with personal experience to render a unique perspective on an historical moment.

The book is about a boy’s experiences in a Japanese detention camp outside Shanghai during World War II. Yes, Ballard lived that experience, but this book is more than thinly veiled autobiography. First, Ballard was not separated from his parents for the duration of the war. Second, it’s unlikely he saw many of the things his main character, eleven-year-old Jim, sees. But isn’t this where a novelist’s imagination comes into play?

With an unflinching eye, Ballard confronts human brutality at its worst while reminding us of the impressionable innocence of the young. In Jim we have a child who feels a strong attraction to the means of destruction—airplanes and atomic bombs—because they are all he knows. Surrounded by starvation and death, the meaning of death troubles and confuses Jim. He wonders when the soul leaves the body and worries if he is dead or alive.

“‘Mrs. Phillips, I’ve thought about the war.’ Jim rolled over in the grass. He was about to explain to Mrs. Phillips that she was dead, but the old missionary was asleep… ‘Mrs. Phillips, we mustn’t worry any more…’”

“He was bare-chested, and his emaciated ribs were like a bird cage in which Jim could almost see his heart fluttering.”

“To Jim it seemed that the two missionary women on the floor were now barely alive, with blanched lips and eyes like those of poisoned mice.”

Such finely wrought images about death and dying occur throughout the book, and none is more powerful than the ending one, which also becomes a metaphor for the loss of youth and the life of memory. Through Jim’s experienced yet innocent eyes, the terror of death becomes more graphic, more believable while remaining unbelievable.

Reading Empire of the Sun, I was reminded of Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird. Told from a child’s perspective with a child’s eye for the magical, the two books might be bookends. Both describe with precise, almost morbid, fascination the cruelties of war, and each dramatizes the depravity that war engenders. These two authors, children of the same war, ask the same question: Does war cause the depravity or does an innate depravity cause war? Based on their fine novels, they seem to have arrived at the same dark answer.

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