Writers of interest – Ma Jian
While I procrastinate about producing essays on my favourite ten novels, I thought I’d start a series of short pieces about some writers you might not have read or even heard about. These are writers who I consider, for one reason or another, to be less famous than they deserve to be. The first such writer is Ma Jian. Born in Qingdao (Tsingtao, as in the beer), China, Ma was a self-proclaimed free-thinker and dissident who attracted the ire of the Communist authorities during the 1980s. He wrote an account of his travels around China entitled “Red Dust: A Path through China.” This fascinating book is basically a travel narrative of Ma’s journey through China in the 1980s. I can highly recommend it to anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of the ‘real’ China, as opposed to the veneer of propaganda you are likely to receive from the Communist authorities, especially in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics. “Red Dust” was first published in English in 2001, but Vintage Books put out a new edition in 2006 as part of their Vintage East series. This series, which also includes gems by important Chinese writers such as Xinran and Ha Jin, should be widely available and modestly priced at around Aus $14.95
Ma Jian has also published a couple of other books in English, but at the moment they seem to be less widely available than “Red Dust.” Ma’s first novel, “The Noodle Maker,” was originally published in Hong Kong in 1991, but was only released in English in 2004. Incidentally, the translator of Ma Jian’s works is his partner Flora Drew, whom he apparently now lives with in Britain. There have been a couple of editions of “The Noodle Maker,” both in the US and UK. “The Noodle Maker” can in fact only loosely be termed a novel; it reads more like a collection of thematically linked short stories. Ma is a realist; he has expressed a desire to write about the lives of people he sees around him. As these stories are set in China in the late 1980s, Ma Jian’s realism is highly appreciated, as they offer an insight into the trials of everyday people in China at that time. I suspect that “The Noodle Maker” isn’t for everyone, as the stories within are harrowing in the extreme, but the book does offer a fascinating insight into the generation of Chinese affected by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
Ma Jian’s only other book in English at this time is “Stick Out Your Tongue,” a slender collection of stories set in Tibet. I am yet to read this book, except for the first chapter which can be read on Amazon.com. However, I did notice that there seems to be some overlap between the final section of “Red Dust” and the first chapter of “Stick Out Your Tongue.” It appears that the latter volume picks up pretty much where the former ends.
I am eagerly awaiting the release of Ma’s new novel, “Beijing Coma”, which is due to be released later this year. From the brief snippet I’ve read about it, “Beijing Coma” appears to be about a man who goes into a coma in the 1980s and wakes up in the 2000s to find that the world is more brutal than the world of his dreams. I can’t wait to read it.