Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Review: Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

Having read Ma Jian's Stick Out Your Tongue a few months ago, I've just spent some time re-reading a lot of it, plus many reviews of it.  I believe I've reached a much better understanding of this brief (93-page) collection of five very powerful vignettes of life in Tibet observed in the mid-1980s.  (Maybe Ma Jian observed; maybe he dreamed; maybe he hallucinated; maybe all three).  I'd like to avoid repeating what most of the published reviewers have said.  They hit all the main points and are easy to search on the Web.  There are especially interesting comments in The Guardian, for example.  It's worth noting that the translation by Flora Drew (the author's wife/partner) is very smooth and trustworthy. 

I've taken a personal liking to Ma Jian ever since I felt like I walked every step with him in Red Dust.  Then I read The Noodle Maker, then Stick Out Your Tongue, and waiting on my shelf is Beijing Coma.  More than some other writers, I see his body of work as a man's thoughts laid bare, wrestling with the troubles of his Motherland.  Ma Jian is able to make us remember the self-destructiveness of China, the lingering emptiness wrought by the Cultural Revolution, the encroachment on Tibet, the dog-eat-dog poverty which political corruption perpetuates.  Yet, he can write all these things without preaching, scolding, or whining.  His literary voice is a howl of pain. 

Officially, today's China finds it very inconvenient to recall yesterday's pain or to acknowledge today's social and cultural ills.  When Stick Out Your Tongue was first published in China in 1985, it was condemned by the government.  All of Ma Jian's works remain banned in China.  He eventually opted to live in London.  ("The Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 convinced me that I could never make China my permanent home." p 90).

Although purportedly a fictional work, Stick Out Your Tongue seems to be autobiographical, describing the author's attempt to run as far away as possible from the authorities in China.   The stories are haunting verbal snapshots, and, like photographs, they don't attempt to pass judgment on the often horrific events.   In the Afterward, Ma Jian is straightforward about the background for these stories, his sojourn in Tibet.  His soul-searching came to a complete void, and he wrote "In this sacred land, it seemed that the Buddha couldn't even save himself, so how could I expect him to save me?  As my faith crumbled, a void opened inside me.  I felt empty and helpless, as pathetic as a patient who sticks out his tongue [italics mine] and begs his doctor to diagnose what's wrong with him." p 87.

There is a key reference to 'sticking out one's tongue in greeting' in the custom of the Tibetans, in the story called "The Eight-fanged Roach"—a tale of double incest, superstition, rape, abuse, insanity.  This and the rest of the stories are alive with smells, blood, wind, cold, dirt, icy water, smoke from dung fires, the blue expanse of sky, the colors black, red, turquoise, and a kind of insanity of a people who have been robbed of their spiritual core.  Numerous assaults on women seem to indicate the destruction of the Motherland.  Death is palpable in every story.

I'm glad I went back to re-read; the first time through I thought they were simply shocking stories, but now I believe there is a much more penetrating message.

Highly recommended, along with all of Ma Jian's writings.


Matthew said...

Odd that I've never read Ma Jian. Really need to put this on my reading list.

nobooksnolife said...

Hi Matthew--I'm so glad to receive your comment! I thought no one was reading this anymore. Are you in China?

Matthew said...

I still stop by every now and of these days I'll get everything in a reader--I still use bookmarks.

No longer in China. Left in March. But that doesn't mean I won't go back.