Red Dust, by Ma Jian
The line between novel and memoir can be a tricky one. As I write this, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Rcoom is shortlisted for the Booker. It’s been argued that it shouldn’t be eligible for that prize, and that it’s not a novel at all but simply a travelogue or memoir.
I’ve not read In a Strange Room yet, though I plan to. It’s not the only book though where that issue arises. Red Dust is a book by Chinese writer and dissident Ma Jian. Like In a Strange Room it’s a travel memoir that reads like a novel, which raises the question of which exactly it is. In a sense it’s both. Memory after all is unreliable and only Ma Jian knows how much of what he wrote is true.
In 1983 Ma Jian set out on a road trip across China. He spent three years travelling, frequently destitute and carrying with him only his forged papers, his camera and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This book is his account of those years.
My description above makes Red Dust sound like a more recent On the Road (or Down and Out in Beijing and Xian), but it’s much darker than that. Jian goes on a search for spiritual fulfilment, but what he finds only challenges his faith. What drives him out isn’t existential angst, but political pressure. This is not Eat, Pray, Love territory.
Jian is a painter and a propaganda worker (nobody in 1980s China lives by art alone). His social circle in Beijing consists of other painters, writers and poets but the social climate has turned against them and a new campaign against “Spiritual Pollution” has been launched. Jian is out of touch with the times, his paintings do not show “the joy and excitement of life under the Four Modernisations”.
Jian’s book is unsparing about the brutalities of what he refers to openly as “communist tyranny”. There is a chilling early section where he is instructed to attend a “self-criticism” session at work. It goes poorly, and soon after he is interviewed by the police:
After lunch, as I sit at my desk reading my post, Director Zhang walks in and says, ‘You are wanted at the Public Security Bureau.’ I look round and see two policemen standing in the doorway. It is dawn three days later before I am finally released from the Western District Public Security Bureau. The officer who walks me to the gates says, ‘Don’t look so pleased with yourself. If we want to, we can make you slowly disappear.’
China then, and I believe now, has no freedom of internal travel. To leave Beijing Jian needs introduction papers that he can show to party officials as he travels. He forges some himself (he is after all an artist) and leaves Beijing. Soon after his wife denounces him as a political criminal and denies him access to his only child.
Jian’s journey takes him across China. He visits other artists and writers, stays with them and exchanges letters with friends back home. This is where the book’s key problem lies. There is a certain repetition in Jian arriving somewhere completely broke; getting put up by a friend; observing their domestic arrangements and the compromises they’ve each reached between their art and the state; and then heading on.
That repetitive element meant that there were times reading Red Dust when I quite simply got bored. As a rule, I have no stronger criticism of a book than that it bored me. Even so, I finished Red Dust and I’m glad I did. I think it’s worth reading, and with the caveat that at times it needs a bit of a push to get through I’d recommend it to others.
The reason that I’d recommend it is because it is utterly unsparing in its depiction of China. It captures a street-level ugliness and squalor that makes for difficult reading but at the same time it shows too the beauty of much of China. There is a contrast here between the country itself as a physical place, the character of some of its ordinary people, and against both the intolerance of the state and its officials.
There is sand in the air but the sky is still blue. In the middle of the traffic island a statue of a flying apsara plays a lute behind her back. She twists round with a beatific smile, one leg in the air, as horse-drawn carts, bicycles and buses circle around her. Apsaras are Buddhist nymphs who float through the air trailing garlands of diaphanous silk. Unlike Christian angels, they do not need wings to fly. The bright banner suspended between two telegraph poles behind her says FIRST CHILD: COIL, SECOND CHILD: ABORTION, THIRD CHILD: HYSTERECTOMY. The blood-red characters turn my stomach.
Ma Jian is not a wise traveller. More than once he sets out across a mountain pass or a desert without making remotely sensible preparations, and more than once he comes very close to dying. He runs out of money and ends up doing whatever work he can find, cutting hair in the street or labouring. He has occasional success with women, but his need to keep moving means that he has little by way of solid relationships.
Against this background Jian seeks to find some kind of meaning to his life. He is a Buddhist, and seeks out sacred sites in the hope of finding some kind of inspiration. Mostly he finds priests who charge for photos and either neglected sites or ones overrun with tourists. At one point he comments “When you work for the Party, you have to learn to falsify reality.” He looks for that reality in the wilderness, but finds it is merely uncomfortable, dangerous and lonely.
Jian leaves a Beijing which is a mix of unhappy memories, artistic frustrations and official repression. The desert is filled only with ghosts and fragments of sacred history that he keeps not quite being able to reach or see. He is tormented by the loss of access to his daughter and as his journey continues his friends’ back in Beijing’s lives move on so that he becomes increasingly distant from them. How can you travel like this for so long and remain able to connect with those you left behind?
Ma Jian is a talented writer, and his partner Flora Drew has produced an excellent translation. There are some fine descriptive passages and as I read the book the bad breath, foul odours, filth and squalor were all too easy to picture. It’s not just grime and misery though, there are passages also describing mountains, deserts and also ordinary life which are a pleasure to read.
On the third day I reach Luqu, a small village consisting of a few mud houses scattered along a straight stretch of road. There are trucks parked on the verge and horses tied to posts. I step into the village shop, buy a fizzy orange and sit drinking it on a large sack of flour by the doorway. Tibetan herders stream in to buy chillies, tea, oil, cigarettes. When it comes to settling the bill they empty their money onto the counter, let the shopkeeper take what he needs, then stuff the remainder into their pockets.
In the end though, it is not the description of Tibetan herders that stays with me. When Jian reaches Tibet he finds it ruled by a priest class filled with illiterates many of whom seem to have little interest beyond filling their bellies. He expects something better there than what he left in mainland China, but in both places everyday life is subject to the whims of a self-appointed group that seems both out of touch and profoundly ignorant.
There is one other challenge in reading Red Dust that is worth mentioning, besides the occasional feel of repetition I referred to earlier. As discussed above, Jian is very good at description. The problem is that often what he has to describe is horrific. I can’t speak to how true any of the book’s contents remain, well over thirty years have passed since this journey after all. That said, some parts definitely remain distinctly relevant today:
Public executions take place throughout China in the run-up to National Day. I have grown up reading these death notices and have attended several executions. I once watched an army truck stop, a young man called Lu Zhongjian come out, handcuffed, and two soldiers escort him away. When he started to scream, they slung a metal wire over his mouth and tugged it back, slicing through his face. Then they kicked him to the ground and shot three bullets into his head. His legs flailed and his shoe flew into the air. A year later I married his girlfriend. I only found out they had been lovers when I discovered his death notice hidden at the back of Guoping’s drawer.
I’ve omitted quotes about flies crawling from food served in a restaurant, or worst of all about the truly horrific abortion procedures for unmarried mothers.
Even with those omissions, I’ve quoted a lot from this one. That’s partly because of the breadth of territory it covers, partly because I read it on a Kindle and it was a bit too easy to select quotes, and partly because I’m blogging it over a fortnight after finishing it (I find it harder to concisely capture a book if time has passed).
I’m going to end though on one final quote, which I think sums up Jian’s journey. In a Western book of this kind we would expect Jian to have some sort of personal revelation, some spiritual reward. Jian is searching for reality, and so feels no need to provide the reader with any such comforting myth.
‘Sorry, which way is the bathroom?’ I push the table towards Wu Jian and squeeze out. The elderly neighbours are chatting in the cool of the dark corridor. I find a relatively clean corner of the latrines, pull down my trousers and scratch my thighs. A lump of someone’s fresh turd steams by my feet. I look at the city through the cracked window pane, and know that every room is crammed with bodies and each body is dripping with sweat. I feel a longing for the empty grasslands and the cruel deserts. At least the air was clean there. Now that I have sunk into this steaming city, everything seems familiar and ordinary.