Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Best Translated Book Nominees: Ma Jian's CHINA DREAM (Translated by Flora Drew)

I never could have imagined Billy Pilgrim* as a moderately powerful bureaucrat in 21st Century People's Republic of China, but Ma Jian sure did. And why do we read international fiction if not to be surprised once in a while by weirdness like that?
But our hero, Ma Daode, is not unstuck in time because of aliens from outer space, but because his own greatest task is bringing about the state of affairs he is experiencing for everyone! As head of the China Dream bureau, he is tasked with a combination of propaganda and technological compulsion that will bring all of Chinese society (and eventually all of humanity) into a state of literally all dreaming current leader Xi Xinping's dream of harmony and homogeneity for China, both in daily life and during actual REM sleep. It's a terrifying idea that Ma Jing confronts here, and he does so bravely and with that most potent of dissident defenses, ridicule. 

China Dream does not concern itself with how a chip implanted into people's brains to over-write their dreams and memories with a collective one might work or be developed -- indeed, our hero eventually resorts to a decidedly non-technological means to his end -- but instead focuses on Director Ma, the deeply flawed and barely competent man saddled with overseeing this dystopian project. Ma was a young Red Guard during the cultural revolution, who turned in his own parents as Rightists for very slight thoughtcrimes but is haunted more by memories of bloody factional violence within the Red Guard than by guilt over an action that led to his parents' suicide. He copes with those memories, into which the reader is drawn repeatedly without warning, through debauchery described with enough sickening detail to make China Dream a fairly unpleasant listen for people who don't appreciate sex scenes (yo!) but at least narrator David Shih didn't get too lip-smacky about it, and translator Flora Drew struck a decent balance between writing erotica and clinically descriptive porn, so while I wanted a shower after each of these scenes I didn't also wish for some kind of memory educating soup to scrub them out of my brain.

But boy, do I wish Drew, who is Ma Jian's partner in life, could have worked on him about how he wrote his female barely-characters, most of whom are Director Ma's mistresses. As depicted here, they are uniformly two-dimensional and single-minded in their pursuit of this gross old man's affections. I'm sure this is at least partly meant as a commentary on power dynamics, but such a commentary would be even more effective if the women in the story got to be people, and got to talk about something besides their moistness. Especially since narrator Shih gave them uniformly artificial and breathy Female Speech Patterns. Yuck.

The scenes from Director Ma's memories are, however, uniformly brilliant, harrowing and nightmarish and vivid; Ma is a fully realized character whose story is compelling and serves as a scathing indictment of totalitarianism and its ultimate logical ends, of the cost in ordinary lives and ordinary dreams the pursuit of this exacts, and the ridiculousness of the equally ordinary humans who claim to be willing to pay those costs in the pursuit of a bad dream. 

This will not be my last Ma Jia read, though likely my last audio book of his work. It's a lot harder to skip icky sex scenes in the audio medium than in text, I've found. 

*The unstuck-in-time boob-hero of Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE

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