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Kafka in the Middle Kingdom

by Randy Boyagoda

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.

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