Academic Journals -> Newpaper Articles & Reviews>
Articles and Reviews: BOOKS
My Bodhi Tree
By Zhang Xianliang
While meditating under a bodhi tree, Shakyamuni,
the historical Buddha, achieved enlightenment, and Zhang Xianliang
considers his time in Chinese labour reform camps, 22 years in all,
as his bodhi tree. This book, by the author of novels like Half
of Man is Woman and Getting Used to Dying, is made up
of annotations to a diary Zhang kept while imprisoned in 1960, and
is a sequel to the bestselling Grass Soup. This territory
will be familiar to anyone who has read Jung Chang’s unforgettable
Wild Swans, or Traveller Without a Map, the autobiography
of Xiao Qian, the Chinese translator of Ulysses.
The years 1960-62 are called the ‘three years
of natural disaster’ in China, when weather was blamed for poor
harvests and lack of food. In fact the problems were caused by disruption
of the agrarian economy due to policies dictated by Mao Zedong at
the time of the Great Leap Forward (1958). Some 30 million Chinese
died of starvation, including one-third of the several thousand
inmates in Zhang’s camp.
Here he vividly records the privations he and
his countrymen suffered and saw. He was reduced to eating his own
lice, which he tells us taste like sesame seeds. He saw hungry men
unable to finish even the bowls of millet gruel served in the camp,
since their digestive systems had atrophied and their stomachs had
become too small. He tells us that once the libido had made its
early exit, having a meal together was the equivalent of sexual
union. ‘Men who could share a single bowl of food in the camps were
men who were capable of being friends to the death.’ Once he managed
to escape from the camp, but returned after a month when he discovered
that the convicts on the inside had more to eat than the peasants
on the outside. So much for the socialist workers’ paradise.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the grim circumstances
he endured, there are touches of humour here too. Zhang plays up
the absurdity of the endless ‘struggle and criticism’ sessions in
the camp, where prisoners would criticise each other, and then the
victim would publicly accept the criticism. (In the west, people
pay for this, and it’s called ‘group therapy’.) Or the time he was
made secretary of the camp, for writing the ideologically sound
but sycophantic poems the authorities recommended, with titles like
‘Airplane Sprays Insecticide’. Doubtless if Shakespeare had flourished
under Mao, we would now be the proud possessors of a collection
of sonnets praising new combine harvesters and increased grain production.
So much for social realism.
The New York Times has called Zhang ‘the
Chinese Milan Kundera’, and one can see the affinities. A self-confessed
hedonist in a world beset by politics, Kundera chose exile in Paris
rather than life under dictatorship in his native Czechoslovakia.
But Zhang didn’t have such an option, so perhaps he has more in
common with Vaclav Havel, who chose internal exile, and an attitude
of passive resistance which mocked the regime. Havel subsequently
became president of his country. Who do we admire more today, Kundera
or Havel? And is the source of that admiration literary or political?
Literature and politics form, as Edna Longley tells us, ‘the dangerous
intersection’. We each choose our own strategies for survival.
The same distinction could be drawn between the
respective reactions of Aleksande Solzhenitsyn and Josef Brodsky
to life in Russia under Stalin. Solzhenitsyn wrote grim fiction
about his experiences in the Gulag, and an even grimmer factual
account of it. Brodsky, the Nobel laureate who died last month,
continued to pursue his own themes in his poetry. His strategy was
to adopt an attitude of extreme individuality, to become a world
within a world inside himself. As he wrote in his essay ‘Less Than
One’, ‘To get a low grade, to operate a milling machine, to be beaten
up at an interrogation, or to lecture on Callimachus in a classroom
is essentially the same.’ The best way for any artist to deal with
political ideologues, be they communist or fascist (opposite sides
of the same coin) is to ignore them or, failing that, to laugh at
them, even when they’re beating you up. Today Solzhenitsyn’s work
reads like a list of complaints against the Soviet state, valid
but turgid. Brodsky’s poetry is still beautiful, (as is that of
Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Ratushinskaia).
Other western writers with whom Zhang bears comparison
are Primo Levi and Paul Celan, both Holocaust survivors. Levi dealt
with his experiences in works like The Drowned and the Saved
and If This is a Man, while Celan was the man who not only
wrote poetry after Auschwitz, but poetry about Auschwitz, like ‘Death
Fugue’ and ‘Psalm’. Sadly the burden of grief and memory proved
too much for both of them, and they both died suicides.
Zhang seems to be in much better psychological
health. My Bodhi Tree is a valuable addition to the literature
of incarceration and genocide, and shows how, through a strange
mixture of hedonism and stoicism (opposite sides of the same coin),
the human spirit can triumph over the bleakest of experiences.
First published in The Sunday Tribune