Ma Jian’s novels have been banned in his native China for 30 years and he has been hailed as ‘China’s Solzhenitsyn’. His latest book, China Dream, also contains some of the zip and vigour found in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian visions. This must be one of the liveliest novels about brainwashing ever written.
Ma Daode, the protagonist, is the director of the China Dream Bureau. Chillingly, such a body exists and was tasked with promoting Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream of National Rejuvenation’ shortly after he came to power in 2012.
Ma Jian takes this concept one stage further and has Ma Daode work on ‘developing a neural implant, a tiny microchip which we would call the China Dream Device’. This is to be inserted into citizens’ brains to delete memories and dreams. The programme is a metaphorical extension of the author’s belief that consumerism and nationalism have already turned the Chinese into ‘overgrown children who are fed, clothed and entertained, but who have no right to remember the past or ask questions’. So far, so dour. But Ma Daode is a comic figure, pot-bellied, given to bribes and sexual incontinence. He has a wife, 12 favoured mistresses whom he calls the ‘Twelve Golden Hairpins’ and is even aroused by the lipstick of a woman under arrest, in spite of her having a rope round her neck.
He tries to seduce his lovers with banalities, often confused by the difference between his own original thought and a cliché he has harvested from the internet. He is disassociated enough to be pleasantly surprised when, fleetingly, ‘the thoughts in his head now correspond with the words leaving his mouth’.
Like Mo Yan, the 2012 winner of the Nobel prize for literature, the author grew up during the Cultural Revolution. In contrast to Mo Yan, however, Ma lives in exile in London, so can write without self-censorship, which might account for the vivacity of his prose. In this deft translation by Flora Drew, who is also his wife, Ma’s satirical intent is never in doubt; and to further underscore the political purpose behind this novel, a bespoke illustration by the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei graces its cover. For all the horror, Ma sees freedom in confronting the true nightmare of the past, perceiving that it is the only way to liberate our futures.