In Ma Jian’s vision of China the past has never truly been addressedby Rana Mitter / December 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
China Dream by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew (Chatto & Windus, £12.99)
What is China’s future? In this novel, the question is asked through Ma Daode, a pot-bellied local government official recognisable in plenty of small towns today—about 50 per cent corrupt, juggling mistresses, but also with a human heart.
Ma wants to roll out a “China dream” neural implant, a device that can wipe memories and instead install a pure devotion to Chinese leader
. While the device is fictional, the setting is brilliantly realistic, bringing to mind the smoky rooms that characterise small-town offices in provincial China, along with the near-riots in response to bulldozers destroying ancestral homes to build yet another plate-glass-and-tile paradise.
The “China dream” device is a metaphor for the unquiet ghosts that lie just below the surface. Ma Daode often recalls the Cultural Revolution, during which he denounced his own parents, who later committed suicide. Author Ma Jian, who now lives in London, captures with acuity the pressures that come from living with people you have known since you were teenagers, when entire villages were at each other’s throats. However much he wants to, Ma Daode can’t wipe out the past.
Ma Jian’s writing, beautifully rendered in Flora Drew’s pin-sharp translation, is savage and comic. There are in-jokes: two of the villages scheduled for demolition are named Yaobang and Ziyang, the personal names of the two reformist leaders removed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. Yet it is today’s China that is in Ma Jian’s sights. Xi’s regime has declared that it is creating a future where the future is scorchingly bright; the past is useless unless sanitised. Ma Jian’s vision is of a China where the past has never been forgotten because it has never truly been addressed. His final scene, when those memories burst to the surface, will remain with readers as an image of a darkness that China has yet to resolve.