TRAPPED IN A FAN­TASY

Past be­tray­als erupt into the present, and re­al­ity and dystopia merge in Ma Jian’s fever­ish vi­sion of mod­ern Chi­nese so­ci­ety

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture - By Madeleine Thien

On the cover of Ma Jian’s new novel, an an­cient tree is ex­plod­ing in all di­rec­tions, its branches seem­ing to lash out at the heav­ens. De­signed by an­other ex­ile from China, artist Ai Wei­wei, the im­age is a haunt­ing door­way into China Dream, a bit­ing and hu­mane novel in which buried dreams and past be­tray­als erupt into the present mo­ment.

In 2012, pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping used the phrase the Chi­nese Dream ( zhōng­guó mèng) to de­scribe “the great re­ju­ve­na­tion” of the na­tion. A na­tional sol­i­dar­ity move­ment, the Chi­nese Dream at­tempts to fuse cul­tural pride and in­di­vid­ual self-re­al­i­sa­tion with the coun­try’s eco­nomic growth and ris­ing in­flu­ence. The slo­gan is ev­ery­where, on bill­boards, in speeches and ad­ver­tise­ments, and mixes pa­tri­o­tism and self-help with the “twin goals of re­claim­ing na­tional pride and achiev­ing per­sonal well­be­ing”.

Ma was born in 1953, the same year as Xi Jin­ping. Both men wit­nessed the sham­ing, ex­ile and loss of fam­ily mem­bers dur­ing Mao Ze­dong’s po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. In 1983, Ma him­self was ar­rested for the crime of spir­i­tual pol­lu­tion; he chron­i­cled his ex­ile to the most re­mote re­gions of the coun­try in Red Dust, an un­for­get­table mem­oir of post-Mao China. To­day, the lives of Ma and Xi re­main strik­ingly at odds. In 2018, Xi ended term lim­its on the pres­i­dency, thus open­ing the door to his in­def­i­nite rule. Ma, barred from en­ter­ing China, has mis­chie­vously stolen Xi’s sig­na­ture slo­gan.

China Dream’s an­ti­hero, Ma Daode, is vicechair of the lo­cal writ­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion and di­rec­tor of the newly cre­ated China Dream Bureau, ded­i­cated to en­sur­ing that the Chi­nese Dream en­ters “the brain of every res­i­dent of Ziyang City”. Ma Daode is clever and in­flu­en­tial: he has stashed moon­cakes filled with lit­tle gold bars in his at­tic, and is jug­gling so many lovers that he keeps a “Fra­grant Beau­ties Reg­is­ter”; one lover calls him Mr Dirty Dream. But his hard-won suc­cess is be­ing un­der­mined by ter­ri­fy­ing sliv­ers of mem­ory. He places his hopes in an imag­ined “China Dream De­vice”, which, if im­planted, would make all dreams – first and fore­most his own – com­ply with pres­i­dent Xi’s vi­sion and al­low him to wake up in­side “a life of un­bri­dled joy”.

Bleakly funny, in­ci­sive, sting­ing and – in its most desta­bil­is­ing pas­sages – gut-wrench­ing, China Dream, bril­liantly trans­lated by Flora Drew, is set at a time when re­al­ity and dystopia have be­gun to bleed into one an­other. In the kalei­do­scope of Ma Daode’s thoughts, dif­fer­ent times con­verge; dream lo­ca­tions are over­laid on the sites of night­mares. A wild grove out­side Ziyang City is, in the present, a de­mo­li­tion site mak­ing ready for the very ex­pen­sive Yaobang In­dus­trial Park; in the 1990s, a se­cret ceme­tery; in 1968, the mass grave for hun­dreds of Red Guards killed dur­ing in­ternecine war­fare. It is also the de­serted place where Ma Daode buried his par­ents, who killed them­selves in 1966, dur­ing the first year of the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, af­ter be­ing mer­ci­lessly beaten by Red Guards. In the novel, all times come to us in the present tense. Ai Wei­wei’s an­cient tree on the cover is, it ap­pears, det­o­nat­ing its branches into the now.

Even an orgy can’t help the be­lea­guered Ma Daode stay in the mo­ment. In a comic pas­sage that grows in­creas­ingly sur­real and mov­ing, he en­ter­tains three women in a room dec­o­rated to re­sem­ble Chair­man Mao’s pri­vate rail­way car. As Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion songs, pop­u­lar once more, ring out from the karaoke ma­chine, Ma Daode re­cites Song dy­nasty po­etry. On a TV screen, the 2013 sen­tenc­ing of Bo Xi­lai for cor­rup­tion and abuse of power plays out on the evening news. One of the women laughs when Ma Daode com­plains that her Red Guard cos­tume is in­au­then­tic,

re­ply­ing: “Our boss told us we are all the heirs of Com­mu­nism.” His body, heart and mind are di­vided into so many eras and con­flict­ing de­sires, it’s no won­der he be­lieves that the cure is China Dream Soup, a broth of eter­nal for­get­ting he will ob­tain from a qigong healer and mar­ket to the world. “But what I want to for­get the most,” he says, “is my shame­ful be­trayal of my fa­ther. When I see him again, I will fall to my knees and beg for his for­give­ness.” But how can Ma Daode erase his re­morse at re­spon­si­bil­ity for his par­ents’ deaths with­out also con­sign­ing every mem­ory of them to obliv­ion?

Over the 40 years of his ca­reer, Ma has in­ge­niously chron­i­cled a China strug­gling both to change and to re­mem­ber. Bei­jing Coma, his un­par­al­leled novel of the 1989 Tianan­men demon­stra­tions, is a clas­sic work, as is The Dark Road, the macabre, spell­bind­ing story of a mother’s de­ter­mined jour­ney to out­wit the onechild pol­icy. By rights, Ma should be recog­nised as one of China’s great­est liv­ing nov­el­ists, yet his name can­not be men­tioned in the na­tional press. Bei­jing’s cen­sor­ship of his books – banned for the last 30 years – has been ef­fec­tive. Re­cently, a well read and ac­com­plished Shang­hai editor told me, af­ter I men­tioned Ma, that she had never heard of him. “What kind of books does he write?” she asked, per­plexed. “Does he write in Chi­nese?”

In the last chap­ters of China Dream, Ma Daode, re­mem­ber­ing his own life and the lives of his par­ents, tries to re­nounce his need to mourn. He could be speak­ing to us, or to China’s con­tem­po­rary writ­ers and his­to­ri­ans, or to the fu­ture, when he says: “Those who have tears, lend them to those who have none.” Last year, an es­say by Chi­nese blog­ger Zhang Wu­mao, which de­scribed Bei­jing as a city where peo­ple “can­not move, can­not breathe”, and where mi­grant work­ers “strive for over a decade to buy an apart­ment the size of a bird cage”, went vi­ral. It was swiftly cen­sored and erased from the in­ter­net, and Chi­nese state me­dia rep­ri­manded Zhang, in­sist­ing that Bei­jingers “are all the more real be­cause of their dreams”. The fic­tional Ma Daode, too, wishes to be re­made by fan­tasies. He goes to great lengths to step out of his­tory, to be re­born and ab­solved by a beau­ti­ful dream.

Ma has a marks­man’s eye for the con­tra­dic­tions of his coun­try and his gen­er­a­tion, and the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and buried dreams they carry. His per­cep­tive­ness, com­bined with a ge­nius for cap­tur­ing peo­ple who come from all classes, oc­cu­pa­tions, back­grounds and be­liefs; for iden­ti­fy­ing the fal­li­bil­ity, com­edy and de­spair of liv­ing in ab­surd times, has al­lowed him to com­pas­sion­ately de­tail China’s com­plex in­ner lives. Cen­sor­ing his nov­els and ban­ning his name have been Bei­jing’s cyn­i­cal re­sponse to Ma’s artistry, and to the hu­man lives that the nov­el­ist can­not for­get, even as the Chi­nese Dream en­velops them.

China Dream by Ma Jian

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