Anna Xiao Dong Sun

  • The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew
    Chatto, 179 pp, £10.99, May 2004, ISBN 0 7011 7605 9

Ma Jian wrote The Noodle Maker in 1990, four years after he left China for Hong Kong, then still a British colony. When Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, he left for Europe, living first in Germany, and later moving to London. Red Dust, the English translation of his memoir about three years’ wandering in remote parts of China, was published in 2001. On the back of Red Dust, Ma Jian is described as a ‘dissident artist’. In a recent interview in the Observer, Ma was again called an ‘acclaimed dissident’. Like the first Chinese Nobel laureate in literature, Gao Xingjian, who is routinely labelled ‘a veteran exiled Chinese dissident novelist and playwright’, Ma belongs to a group of Chinese writers living abroad who express anti-Communist opinions. Most of them are now in exile by choice – Ma is free to travel to China – but their political identity is intimately connected to their writing. Many, though not all, are activists who lend their voices to political organisations. ‘Dissidence’ has an obvious appeal, but is Ma’s writing any good?

I was 16 in 1987 when he published his novella ‘Showing Your Tongue, or Emptiness’ in People’s Literature, the pre-eminent state-run literary journal, and can vividly recall how shocked I was by the intentionally repugnant sex scenes and the gruesome depiction of violence. But I was also thrilled by its originality: it was radical in both its subject-matter (life in Tibet) and its manner (realistic and savage), which set it apart from dreary state-approved literature. (At the time, like many young people, I read the newly translated work of Western writers, such as Kafka and Dostoevsky, and ignored most of what was promoted by the state.) Ma’s novella strained the tolerance of the cultural bureaucracy; his work was condemned for ‘distorting and misrepresenting the lives of Tibetan people, which humiliates and angers Tibetans’. The editor in chief of People’s Literature was denounced for publishing the piece. Ma was already in Hong Kong by then.

The Noodle Maker consists of nine stories. The first two, ‘The Professional Writer’ and ‘The Professional Blood Donor’, introduce the two main characters and the novel’s frame narrative. In his shabby high-rise apartment in an unnamed provincial city, a middle-aged writer of official propaganda spends an evening talking with an old friend, a professional blood donor. The writer is depressed by his commission from the Party – a novel about a selfless soldier who is dedicated to the Communist cause – even though writing the book will give him the chance to be included in The Great Dictionary of Chinese Writers. The blood donor, on the other hand, is content with his marginal existence, selling his blood to hospitals for money and various sought-after material goods; he has even set up a blood donor agency.

Over a greasy roast goose and a bottle of booze, the writer and the blood donor swap banter, insults and confessions. Finally, the writer is ready to talk about the book he really wants to write. He ‘racks his brain, trying to think of someone he knows who shows the same selfless, heroic qualities’ as the soldier he is supposed to write about:

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