How do you make sure everyone’s on board with the program in a totalitarian state? In Ma’s (The Dark Road, 2013, etc.) imaginative telling, you make sure they share the same dream.
Ma Daode has it easy: Director of the China Dream Bureau, he has a bathroom off his office, gets suggestive texts from multiple women, makes good money, and sports a “pot belly compressed into large rolls of fat.” He’s got big plans to insinuate the “China Dream” into the minds of everyone in a provincial city and then into the nation at large, replacing private dreams with a shared Party-approved vision. Yet, as the author lets us know from the start, Ma Daode is subject to memories that trouble his sleep and come faster as his plans for dream domination take shape. Ma Daode, it develops, was a young conscript in the Cultural Revolution, a teenager who got caught up in violence and trouble that soon settled on his own family. As the China Dream project takes its twists and turns, melding Chinese traditional thought with Marxism, it seems increasingly absurd. Yet, swamped by memories from the past, Ma Daode urges himself to “hurry up and make the China Dream Device so that all these bloody nightmares can be erased,” though a wise interlocutor warns of one particular turning point in the struggle, “Well, if you want to forget that night, you’ll have to wipe out the entire Cultural Revolution, I’m afraid.” That seems just fine to Ma Daode, and though his colleagues think it a pipe dream, he presses on with his dream device while remembering the sight of long-ago corpses that “lay there for days, growing purple and swollen like rotten aubergines." As Ma, a dissident writer living in exile in London, makes plain, there’s no escape from the past, and trying to do so guarantees a messy future: “utopias always lead to dystopias, and dictators invariably become gods who demand daily worship.”
A masterwork of political satire, meaningful without heavy-handedness.