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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


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