Magazine | September 2, 2013, Issue

Kafka in the Middle Kingdom

The Dark Road, by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew (Penguin, 384 pp., $26.95)

Early in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo describes an especially cruel kind of torture. A young woman, suspected of heresy, is stripped to the waist and tied to a post. As degrading as this sounds, it’s mere prologue: Her persecutors approach, carrying with them the baby she had just been nursing, who is hungry and crying. The officials demand that she recant her heresy before she can succor the baby, or else it will starve to death before her very eyes.

Partway through Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian’s latest novel, The Dark Road, one of his main characters, also a young woman and mother, describes an experience that could surpass the awful situation that Hugo described: “The greatest torture any human being could suffer is to be pregnant with a child and not know which day it might be torn from you; and then, when it is taken from you, to have to watch it being strangled before your eyes.” As the novel makes clear in its exploration of the endless tribulations of “family-planning fugitives” on the run from authorities in rural China, this character knows only too well whereof she speaks, and she is far from alone in possessing such firsthand knowledge.

It’s no surprise that Ma’s work has been banned in China for the past 25 years and that he himself has lived in exile, off and on, for just as long. His books artfully excoriate the Chinese state for governing its country efficiently by governing its citizens’ lives so brutally. But rather than evoke only stark distinctions and antagonisms between simply innocent victims and distant, impersonal powers, Ma devotes his considerable literary skill and equally considerable polemical passion to revealing the interpersonal particulars of China’s totalitarianism. The diktats may come from a centralized authority, but they are fulfilled, often with blind, raging vigor and open venality, by ordinary people — minor officials and rank-and-file policy enforcers — who fill out the vast reach and depth of the state’s mechanisms of command and control. Ma is equally unflinching in his consideration of how frequently onetime resisters and victims of the state finally capitulate and even condone and seek benefit from the programs of official brutality to which they had themselves been subjected. Usually, they do so out of a combination of ground-down spirits, fear, and exhaustion, along with myopic hopes for material goods and improved living conditions.

Ma’s literary representations of his native country position him as a natural successor to such Cold War–era dissident European writers as Josef Skvorecky, Milan Kundera, and Czeslaw Milosz, who likewise exposed the banal evils and degradations of daily life under totalitarian regimes. Yet the ultimate meaning of Ma’s work — that it may be finally impossible to distinguish between straightforward grim realism and horrific absurdist fantasy when it comes to telling believable and accurate stories of life in contemporary China — suggests he may have the most in common with Franz Kafka, modern literature’s unrivaled explorer of the dehumanizing metamorphoses and trials that were inherent to life under totalitarian rule.

In Ma’s latest book, the dehumanizing metamorphoses and trials begin at the very conception of life. This is especially the case for poor village people who break the state’s one-child policy while lacking the means of avoiding punishment for themselves and the unborn child, because they have neither the influential connections nor the wads of bribe money required to obtain permissions merely to fulfill what the book declares is “that most fundamental of human rights,” the right to bear children. Driven by a need to defend this right by exposing its manifold denials, this novel is less artfully accomplished and more bluntly polemical than the author’s past efforts, but nonetheless powerful.

The family at its center is made up of a teacher named Kongzi; his peasant wife, Meili; and their lone child, a little girl called Nannan. When Meili becomes pregnant with a second child, the family goes to extreme and desolating lengths to avoid the population-control police: First, they leave behind their village and family and friends, in no small part to protect these people from the certain punishments — extortionate fines, bulldozed houses — that they will receive if the authorities decide any of them knowingly harbored an illegally pregnant woman instead of immediately reporting her crime. Next, they become river migrants, living on a cramped, plastic-sheeted fishing boat that floats on terribly polluted waters among many other such families likewise trying to have more children. With suspicion and sympathy competing to frame their interactions with each other, these families lead a meager and fearful life balanced between the constant worry of arrest and the necessity of feeding and caring for themselves.

#page#Ma uses their situation to expose some of China’s current priorities. “I earn ten times more as a demolition worker than I did as a teacher,” Kongzi remarks at one point, while at another he learns that certain species of fish are granted “Class One Protection” and their migration routes secured by the state, even as the state regularly arrests undocumented migrant workers and sends them to forced-labor camps. Enterprising men compete along the river to offer grieving families the lowest prices for retrieving the corpses of suicide relatives, while ignoring the bodies of dead newborns — girls, of course — that wash up on the shores. Away from this dark, dark water, neighborhoods are regularly destroyed to make way for grand building projects that turn out to be merely shined-up shells used for photo ops with visiting dignitaries. And in the neighborhoods that are still standing, residents encounter command-encouragements on the walls of family-planning offices: “sever the fallopian tubes of poverty; insert the IUDs of prosperity.” Blunt and awful, the slogan is lyric poetry compared with what actually happens inside the family-planning offices.

We learn as much when Ma turns back our basic, hopeful expectation of the story — that Kongzi and Meili will struggle and struggle but ultimately succeed in bringing their new child into the world. This is not to be. Eight months pregnant with the baby they have decided to name Happiness (the irony too obvious), Meili is discovered and arrested by family-planning police, who subject her and her child to a forced abortion. And rather than merely allude to this experience, or focus on the surrounding tensions and traumas of abortion (as Hemingway does in his story “Hills Like White Elephants” and Gwendolyn Brooks in her poem “The Mother”), Ma describes the event itself in sharp and violent detail, right down to the matter-of-fact strangulation that takes place after the baby is born alive. Physically, psychologically, and emotionally wrecked, lying on an operating table and listening to the abortionist and his staff make small talk while cleaning up, Meili is ordered to sign some paperwork confirming that Happiness was stillborn and then, to top it off, she is billed for the procedure. She’s given a parting gift, nothing less than a one-child-policy swag bag: “There’s a free bottle of mineral water inside, four packs of condoms, and a contraceptive handbook. Now, please get off the table. I need to wash it.”

If the novel ended here, it would be a relatively straightforward account of human tragedy and state-mandated injustice. But it goes on a great deal more, so that Ma can reveal the divisive consequences and broader implications of the couple’s denied effort to have a second child. Kongzi soon abandons the thoughtfulness and courage that characterized his life as a schoolteacher, husband, and father. Instead, he becomes a single-minded sexual brute, consumed with producing a male heir while openly disdainful of the prospect of having a second daughter. And when Meili successfully gives birth to a second child, and it turns out to be another little girl, born no less with defects and maladies owing to her mother’s terrible diet and living conditions, Kongzi secretly hands his new daughter over to a sketchy adoption agency that will probably sell the baby to the proprietor of a child-beggar ring, where there’s a premium placed on handicapped little ones.

Confronted by such desperate prospects for her future children, Meili comes to willingly accept the state’s proposal to abandon fertility for prosperity. She decides she will never give birth again and instead aggressively pursues wealth as a small-time entrepreneur. She begins to enjoy success when her diminished, imploding family reaches its ironically named final destination, Heaven township, a onetime quiet farming district that’s lately become a thriving dumping zone for the consumer waste of First World countries. Here, if you’re not already sterile or barren because of earlier experiences with state family planning, or because of the toxic surroundings, you can have as many children as you’d like. These children will scavenge among the wiry silver mountains of our discarded phones and computers and printers, in search of materials that can be sold to benefit them and their parents — living the sort of lives that, as Ma Jian devastatingly describes in The Dark Road, are all too plausible in today’s China.

– Mr. Boyagoda’s most recent book is Beggar’s Feast, a novel. His biography of Richard John Neuhaus will be published in 2014.

Randy Boyagoda — Mr. Boyagoda, a novelist, is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also the principal of St. Michael’s College. His latest novel, Original Prin, will be published in Canada in 2018.

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