I don’t know where to start. This book is fascinating, perverse, gritty and realistic, though it probably falls more into the magical realism genre. I don’t really know how to classify it or describe it other than ‘strange’ but in a good way.
The book is essentially a short memoir of Ma Jian’s travels through Tibet, with a fictional twist. He dives into the stories of the locals he meets on the way, infusing his charismatic writing style with a stunning insight into human nature.
The Tibet he introduces us to is a dark place, a region ravaged by conflict and the Chinese government’s brutal campaign against it’s unique way of life. He completely destroys the fantasy that Tibet is a spiritual haven, free of corruption and sin. In his short stories men sleep with their mothers and daughters, a woman who died in childbirth is hacked to pieces and fed to vultures in a sky burial, and a young girl dies in a frozen river during a Buddhist initiation rite.
His stories are not pleasant to read, nor do they end happily. There is no satisfying conclusion at the end of them; they’re just a mosaic of different lives, all connected by the physical and cultural setting of Tibet. Ma Jian is a brave writer. He’s unafraid of shying away from the truth, no matter how gruesome and horrid it may be. Through his vivid descriptions he recreates his own authentic experience of Tibet as a region being suffocated by the tight grip of religion, corruption and political upheaval.
As he explains in the afterward, “westerners idealise Tibetans as gentle, godly people untainted by base desires and greed. But in my experience, Tibetans can be as corrupt and as brutal as the rest of us. To idealise them is to deny their humanity.” Perhaps that is the most important lesson of this book. To romanticise another culture and its people is a form of self-delusion, one that leads to stereotyping and wrong assumptions.
Another interesting fact about this book is that it was actually banned in China, which of course led to it becoming incredibly popular on the black market as it had the appeal of the forbidden! Ma Jian later moved to the U.K and currently lives in London with his wife who is also the translator of his books.
I would highly recommend this book, and Ma Jian’s other travel memoir ‘Red Dust’. He writes about China with a chilling honesty that makes him, in my opinion at least, one of the most interesting Chinese writers alive today.
Who’s your favourite Chinese writer? Comment below!