Book Review: Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

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!

On a side note, my New Adult novel ‘This Really Happened’ is free this week on Amazon until Sep 29! Please go and download it here

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Neuschwanstein castle, May 2017

Fireborn, I imagine you in these rooms
Chandeliers like caves, like crowns
Marble floors made for waltzing
Dancing through the endless night.

You painted stories on the walls
With your clairvoyant fingers
Tales of chivalry and romance, an
Echo of something better, a past
Preserved in pastel colour dreams.

This was your escape, wasn’t it?
This castle with its spiral towers
Gleaming white, a diamond in the
Forest of your heart.

I wonder where it went wrong.
You are a mystery that time has
Swallowed, a secret kept safe
Beneath the lake’s calm surface.

I imagine you walking along that shore
A century before me
And plunging into those
Murky depths.

 

A few weeks ago I travelled to Munich alone with the goal of finally visiting the fairytale castle on the mountain that inspired Disney’s ‘Sleeping beauty’ castle. It was just as beautiful as I’d imagined. I brought my notebook along and wrote this poem about King Ludwig II – the owner of the castle – and the strange mystery surrounding his untimely death.

It’s said that one day Ludwig and his psychiatrist were taking a walk around the nearby lake. A few hours later they were both found drowned. Though there are many theories about how he died, none have been confirmed. 

Seeing this castle in person was a sublime experience for me. It was the realisation of a dream I’d harboured for a very long time, but lost sight of last year when I was in a dark place. Being able to make this trip to see it has reminded me of the person I used to be and has given me hope that one day I’ll be that person again. I found that poetry was the best medium to try and capture that feeling and channel the beauty of the place into language, and I hope you agree.

Have you visited Neuschwanstein castle? I would love to hear your thoughts!

 

Porto, 13/11/16

7pm.

Oportoflowers.
Flowers in Porto and
Pink-lit lanterns strewn above
City square stone, painted
Faces on outcrop walls
Fire in the sky and fire from
Inside, feet dangling ledges
Boats moored to hard edges
The view from the barricades
As you pulled me away
From the dancing bridge lights
From the streaming, flowing gold
From this city of angels and fear but
I’ve forgotten the lyrics to that song
And the lights will blow a fuse
In my head; they are burning
Through my vision, cars clamouring
in the late evening rush, headlights
Flaring like angry bulls as we weave
Back towards our starting point
Wandering, wandering
Finding this city in ourselves
Folding over and over again
Running between traffic lights
Spinning between tramlines
Trekking up steep alleys for –
What?
What are we looking for?
What is there here to find?