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book review

Ma Jian’s protagonists are a family attempting to flee China’s one-child policy.Lewis Whyld

When novelist Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize last year, it brought scrutiny not to Mo Yan's novels or to Chinese literature, but to politics. As the Nobel debate raged, the books themselves – his and those of his fellow Chinese novelists – went almost unmentioned.

Mo Yan's work is indisputably political. To his critics, however, it was not political enough – not critical enough of the Chinese government – to merit a prize in literature. More damaging was the accusation that the Nobel laureate had chosen to look away while his fellow writers were silenced. More damaging to us, as outsiders, was our condescension towards Mo Yan. Even in safe countries, few writers speak out if they fear it will harm their careers. We deeply underestimate just how rare, and costly, is the act of dissent. The political uses of art touch every fibre of Chinese literature. To engage with it, one needs knowledge, curiosity and, in my opinion, humility.

Yet consider this description of Mo Yan's novel Pow!, reviewed by National Post columnist and noted literary critic Philip Marchand: "If [readers] are puzzled by what the Wutong Temple is all about, I have no idea either. If the storyline is meaningless, so are the characters. Nevertheless, the novel does reflect some of the political realities the author has lived through…"

What these 20th-century realities are appear to be lost on Marchand, despite the fact that they have claimed the lives of more than 40 million people during his lifetime. When looking for a tradition in which to frame Pow!, Marchand argues "that the true precursor of the novel is Rabelais." His dour conclusion: "The novel may well be of interest to scholars of comparative literature."

And therein lies the punchline. What literary critic would dare write with such confidence about, for instance, European literature despite having read almost no European literature? Imagine a Chinese critic making this goofy comment about Philip Roth's American Pastoral: "It seems to me the true precursor of the novel is the 17th-century writer Li Yu."

Intellectual inflexibility of Marchand's kind is ubiquitous, but it is tiring, to say the least.

But enough of wishing for better. Let us read, deeply, what is. Ma Jian, for whom a Nobel Prize would be entirely deserving, has published a new novel.

In the early 1980s, Ma Jian, then a painter and poet, was facing arrest for the crime of "spiritual pollution." He shed his identity, becoming, for three years, an internal exile, criss-crossing a 10,000-kilometre path through China. By the time he returned home, he had learned to see his country with new eyes, a journey chronicled in his extraordinary book, Red Dust.

Ma Jian's long walk has never really ended. In the 1990s, he left for Hong Kong, Germany and then England, yet he continues to return home. He has never been the kind of writer to sit in his garret or be, as the Chinese saying goes, "separated from the times." His 2008 novel, Beijing Coma, was an epic yet surgically precise narrative of the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, an attempt, he has said, to retain the past and one's memories "when confronted by a system that insists on erasing them."

His new novel, The Dark Road, takes place in the decade after Tiananmen, immersing us in the nine-year journey of Meili and her husband Kongxi as they attempt to keep their second child. Under the one-child policy, in effect since 1979, Meili must submit to a forced abortion and pay a heavy fine. Labelled criminals ("An enemy of the family planning policies is an enemy of the state"), she and Kongxi take to the rivers and become a floating family.

Sex, dreams, poetry, independence: the watery limbo offers an illusive freedom. As the years pass, Meili begins to apprehend all the choices closed to her: freedom to be a mother, freedom not to be a mother, freedom from State-sponsored violence, freedom to enter a city, freedom to value her daughters as much as any son. Back in their village, family planning officials have bulldozed their home and jailed her elderly father; much worse will come. A banner reads, "Rather rivers of blood than one more unauthorized child."

Fleeing south, they anchor in a town about to be demolished as part of the Three Gorges Dam project. Demolitions have featured in Ma Jian's last few books, as have, to varying degrees, the dead, the unborn and unconscious. In his novels, lives and histories are sacrificed to the dream of prosperity but the ones who cannot go along – the dissidents, the grandparents, the surplus humanity, the illegal mothers – do not disappear; they are on their own journey, back up the river, dragging the past behind them.

Indeed, the novel is structured as a series of files organized by keywords, an open and explicit record of what the Chinese government tries to forget. Again and again, children are lost. A family planning nurse says, "When we tied you to this table there were two of you, but when you get off there'll be just one." But history is cyclical, violently so, and in Ma Jian's China, the past is repeatedly, powerfully and violently reborn.

Some will say that the novel is bleak. I find the word limiting. The Dark Road is harsh, and harshly alive, as are the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Thomas Bernhard, Ralph Ellison, and Audre Lorde: they are works of lament.

Of his country Ma Jian has said, "There is a collective fear of truth." He has been celebrated as a dissident writer, but Ma Jian is more than a dissident. He is a born storyteller who has the artistry and intellect to evoke a staggeringly large and densely peopled world. His language is precise and sublimely visual; it is painfully funny. He inhabits Meili's existence – her sex life and her appetites, her fecund body, her mind, her intense joys and devastating sorrows – with virtuosic skill and infinite compassion.

Literature, great literature, dissects the structures of power and, in the process, gives us characters whose humanity enlarges us. Great literature doesn't exist for the privileged, the narcissistic or the powerful, as so much contemporary North American literature seems unthinkingly to do. To use Edward Said's words, Ma Jian sees things "not simply as they are, but as they have come to be that way."

"What gives me hope," Ma Jian said, "is that books are still being written in China that the government deems worthy of a ban."

Allow me to return to the beginning of this essay. I believe that when W.G. Sebald makes reference to a historical event of which we are ignorant, we readers know that the lack is ours. But that is not true when we approach writers who engage with Lebanon, Sri Lanka, China or even our own First Nations history. Those writers are expected to be the explainers, interpreters, educators, spokespeople. Their literature is partly judged by their ability to balance all these roles: their literary success depends on the success of "our" education. Isn't it time to laugh, uproariously, at this ridiculous and unworthy measure of literary value?

The world is large. As readers, let us grow into it.

Madeleine Thien's most recent novel is Dogs at the Perimeter.

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