Out of the Chinese Dream

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Ma Jian’s resistance fiction

XI JINPING, THE eternal leader of the People’s Republic, has to borrow from the glossary of capitalism to phrase his vision. The Chinese Dream is Xi’s thoughts on ‘national rejuvenation’ condensed as aphorisms of a greater tomorrow. It is communism’s heaven-on-earth refurbished with ‘Chinese characteristics’. It is a counter-narrative to the American Dream, the ideal played out by the freest of nations. Xi, the last maximum leader, sells his dream as a state sedative. Its fantasy-inducing powers make citizens happy prisoners; it banishes questions and makes what Chinese dissidents call the Fifth Modernisation— democracy—redundant in the marketplace. It is still glorious to be rich (thanks to Deng Xiaoping), but it is still dangerous to defy the apparatus, as Leninist as ever. The Chinese Dream is the new helmsman’s attempt to control the mind, forever. Mao wrote poetry. Xi poeticises propaganda.

Ma Jian, the Chinese novelist in exile, is a dissident burdened by memory. He is haunted by a past that abhors manufactured dreams. He has opted out of the glitzy tyranny of Xi to write what can be called resistance fiction. His new book, China Dream, has the immediacy of a headline and the urgency of a lone cry from Xi’s paradise. As a parable that draws from the bathos and burlesque that seldom escape the bamboo curtain to spoil the great-leap China stories we read, China Dream works as a rebuke and a lament.

Ma turns the personal tragedy of a local apparatchik, narrated with comic exuberance, into a political rejoinder, a rejection of the cosiest make-believe ever built. In this novel set in the here and now, Ma Daode—fat, corrupt, lecherous—is the director of China Dream Bureau, currently obsessed with the idea of brain cleansing. Xi’s Chinese Dream mandates that every private dream should be eradicated. Schooled in the Cultural Revolution, Director Ma remains a tortured, conflicted soul even as he imagines new ways to banish memories and ‘illegal’ dreams from his province. The more he tries to erect Xi’s Dream on the ruins of the past, the more he is wracked by the memories of orchestrated blood feuds of the Cultural Revolution.

The past seeps into the unlikeliest of places and at the most inopportune moments. In the Red Guard Nightclub, the past won’t leave him even in the company of three whores in Red Guard suits in a room that is a replica of a train compartment used by Chairman Mao. “As he swallows some more claret, Director Ma sees his childhood sweetheart, Pan Hua, appear in his mind’s eye, dressed in a khaki army jacket with a white, sewn-on collar. ‘Be kind to your mother when you get home,’ she told me before I left the headquarters. ‘Take my copy of Mao’s Little Red Book with you. It will keep you safe on your journey.’ My heart started beating so fast, all I could say in reply was: ‘I’ll be back tomorrow.’ But my parents committed suicide that night, and when I returned to the East is Red headquarters a week later, I learned that Pan Hua had been killed in a battle…” At the rotten core of a totalitarian dream, redemption comes from ghosts alone.

Director Ma has no freedom from them. They interfere with the dream he is paid to protect and spread. The suicide of his parents—both victims of the Cultural Revolution—is still too stark a memory to be eradicated by slogans and banners. The good, blood-stained apprentice revolutionary that Director Ma was during the Cultural Revolution, he had repudiated individual bondage for the greater social good. As Xi’s Dream merchant, he loses control over his own dreams, and his mind becomes a battlefield of a carefully choreographed present and a crueller past. One image won’t go away: ‘…I switched on the light and saw my parents on the floor, my mother’s purple-stained hand gripping my father’s sallow hand, as their souls drifted off to the Yellow Springs of the netherworld.’ Only a sorcerer’s brew can free him from the past—and take him closer to his parents. Intimacy inside Xi’s dream comes only when the wayward dreamer becomes one with the dead. The stories the dead tell break the spell. In a final set-piece, Director Ma, wearing one of his father’s brogues, and caught between memory and madness, watches the dead playing out their own crushed dreams.

The dust jacket hyperbole calls Ma Jian ‘China’s Solzhenitsyn’. When the Great Russian finally came back home, the place let his Slavic soul down. Novelist Ma is no such angry prophet, though China can do with one. He is a writer with a cause, and his novel even carries a foreword that states: “I wrote China Dream out of rage against the false utopias that have enslaved and infantilised China since 1949, and to reclaim the most brutal period of its recent history—the ‘violent struggle’ phase of the Cultural Revolution—from a regime that continues to repress it.” The sense of political urgency about resistance fiction is matched by an overwhelming absence of a human soul. That makes Ma Jian less Solzhenitsyn.