Following the success of Chinese dissident Ma Jian’s memoir Red Dust (2001), this political satire, originally published in 1993, now appears in English after a first-serial excerpt in The New Yorker.
Nine linked stories take as their background the reforms carried out by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death. While the Party is still firmly in control, capitalist enterprises and foreign imports are now sanctioned. “Suddenly we find ourselves in the forest of modern life without a map or a compass,” comments a man, known as the professional writer, who is talking to his friend the blood donor. The writer is a penurious Party hack; the profit-seeking blood donor is now a millionaire, thanks to Deng. Their conversations form a frame for other tales about characters from the writer’s unfinished novel (not a Party project). Among them are the owner of a for-profit crematorium, who strips corpses of their burial clothes before sending them into the oven to the sound of their favorite music; an actress who stages her suicide (“the latest act from Japan”), allowing a showbiz-savvy tiger to eat her; and a henpecked editor whose wife rides the reforms like the crest of a wave, forsaking novel writing to become a black-market trader and another capitalist success story. The best tale shows a man trying to abandon his retarded daughter (a side-effect of the One Child Policy) but growing increasingly fond of her in the process; it’s succinct and right on target. The political satire here is equaled in potency by a pervasive disgust with the body, expressed by some characters (the actress complains of “slimy male fluids”) but merely endured in silence by others (a wretched young textile worker, mistress of the editor). A comment that the “gentle and kind” expression has disappeared from Chinese faces sounds heartfelt.
Blistering satire somewhat marred by long-windedness.