China: Novelists Against the State

Death Fugue

by Sheng Keyi, translated from the Chinese by Shelly Bryant
Artarmon, Australia: Giramondo, 375 pp., AU$29.95 (paper)

The Dog: Stories

by Jack Livings
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 226 pp., $25.00
Courtesy of Ma Liang
Ma Liang: Postman, No. 1, 2008; from Jiang Jiehong’s An Era Without Memories: Chinese Contemporary Photography on Urban Transformation, published recently by Thames and Hudson

Can writers help an injured society to heal? Did Ōe Kenzaburō, who traveled to Hiroshima in 1963 to interview survivors of the dropping of the atomic bomb on that city eighteen years earlier, and then published a moving book called Hiroshima Notes, help his compatriots to recover? Did Primo Levi, with his several books on the Holocaust, from the shocking Survival in Auschwitz (1947) to the profoundly humane The Drowned and the Saved (1986), help Europe and the world to adjust to facts that might have seemed impossible to adjust to? It seems that writers indeed can do some good. It is not hard to think of other examples in modern history.

In China, the problem of moving beyond the disasters of Mao Zedong’s rule and its consequences (today’s authoritarian capitalism, despite its appearance of being opposite to Maoism in some ways, is one consequence) has been difficult. Chinese readers have not had enough help from their writers. Censorship of course is an important reason for this: Ōe Kenzaburō and Primo Levi did not have to write under regimes that were trying to repress them. The environment for Chinese writers has been closer to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Miklós Haraszti in Hungary had to cope with. Chinese who write candidly about Maoism and its consequences have often landed in prison, where Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang are today—or in exile, with Gao Xingjian, Su Xiaokang, Zheng Yi, Liao Yiwu, and others.

The phrase “write candidly” that I have just used raises an important issue, however. Fully candid writers in China stand at one end of a long spectrum. Almost no writer of any seriousness remains entirely unconcerned with the fate of humanistic values in post-Mao society. The question “What happened?” still lurks, as does the question “How can we look squarely at what happened, recover our balance, and move on?” But a problem always arises: How can a writer explore these questions and at the same time avoid punishment for the exploration? The roles of creator and self-censor tend to collide, and some kind of indirection, or midcourse evasion, often seems necessary. It’s as if a huge reverse magnet lay at the heart of the subject; writers move toward it, but then, as they draw near, are deflected to one side or another by a seemingly invisible force.

During the “scar literature” years (1977–1980) immediately following the death of Mao, the most common way to deflect was to keep things superficial or euphemistic. Deng Xiaoping’s regime had labeled Mao’s last ten years “a decade of catastrophe” and was urging writers to “liberate their thought.” But Deng also…

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