A buffoonish, pleasure-seeking state bureaucrat tries to suppress nightmare memories from his past.
Ma Daode has recently been appointed director of the China Dream Bureau. The Bureau’s project is one of national rejuvenation, a restatement of Communistic values. Ma decides the best way to do this is by erasing troubling memories of the past. He works on the idea of a ‘neural implant’, a chip that would be implanted in the brain, allowing the subject to live more perfectly the China Dream.
All should be going well for Ma. He has position, authority, wealth and a virtual harem of lovers. If only he weren’t troubled by such terrible memories, horrific images from his past. The worst memories are from the Cultural Revolution. In his youth Ma denounced his parents as “rightists”, joined a political faction and involved himself in killing, betrayal and ritual humiliations. His parents committed suicide and he can never forgive himself.
It is torture for Ma, trying to forget. He tries all sorts of diversions, but nothing works. Eventually he goes to a Qigong healer, Master Wang, who gives him a recipe for a concoction that will hopefully help him forget.
Chinese author Ma Jian, an exiled dissident who now lives in London, found the idea for this novel from President Xi Jinping’s call for a “China Dream of national rejuvenation”, one that would maintain economic success and restore China to its former glory. The novel is part satire and part political allegory, a study of the conflicted nature of the Chinese national psyche: past horrors such as the Cultural Revolution must be expunged from memory, even though they form a vital part of the country’s history.
China Dream is written with concision and clarity, perfectly animating its surreal and absurdist subject matter (full marks to Flora Drew’s superb translation). The character of Ma Daode is described almost as an affable fool. It’s easy to feel some sympathy for this clownish bungler, despite the terrible confessions from his past. Ma Jian’s surreal and ironic novel is reminiscent of Russian greats such as Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Bulgakov. It’s a work that examines the deep contradictions found in any national character that tries to suppress its past and has a universality beyond being a spoof of President Xi Jinping’s state propaganda.
China Dream, by Ma Jian. Published by Chatto and Windus. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books