Thursday 27 March 2014

'The Dark Road' by Ma Jian (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 9)

After a couple of diversions, I'm back on my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey, with today's leg taking us on a watery trip though the Chinese provinces.  A word of warning before we begin, though - this is most definitely not one for the faint of heart (or weak of stomach)...

The Dark Road by Ma Jian - Chatto & Windus
(translated by Flora Drew)
What's it all about?
Meili is a young woman pregnant with her second child, which in most places would be a cause for celebration.  Sadly, this is late-twentieth-century China, and the womb is the property of the state, meaning that for those who get pregnant without permission, the so-called Family Planning Officers are able to come and issue fines - or worse.

With Meili's husband, Kongzi (a seventy-sixth-generation descendant of Confucius) set on producing a male heir, the small family is forced to flee their home village, taking to the polluted waterways in an attempt to find a safe place to bring a son into the world.  Sadly, there are few safe places in this country, particularly for those unfortunate enough to be born both peasants and poor - this is a journey which will take a very, very long time...

A warning - The Dark Road is one of the most upsetting books I've ever read.  From the very first chapter, Ma plunges the reader into a chaotic, brutal world where our nerves are shredded simply by reading about Meili's experiences.  Every time that Meili and Kongzi appear to be making headway, you can guarantee that there's another disaster waiting around the corner, each more horrible than the last.

It's a novel of life in a totalitarian state, a country which has taken control of the most basic functions of life.  Most people will have heard of the One-Child Policy, but few will have envisaged the way in which it was carried out:
p.15 (Chatto & Windus, 2013)
The state has its eye on all women of child-bearing age, jumping in with mandatory IUD insertion and forced sterilisations, seemingly on a whim.  With slogans like this posted and painted on walls all over the towns and villages, it's a wonder that women dare to fall pregnant at all.

That they do, and this is certainly the case with Meili, is mainly due to the importance of the male heir in Chinese society.  In fact, while the state may have primary control of the uterus, the husband is next in line, well before the woman herself.  As one of Meili's friends comments:
"Take my advice: never rely on a husband for your happiness.  The government persecute men, then men persecute their wives in return." (p.26)
Much of Meili's suffering is brought about by the stubbornness of her husband.  A kind, educated, decent man, he is simply unable to accept life without a son and is determined to do anything he can to fulfil his filial duty.  You'd think that the well-being of his wife and daughter would take priority when the Family Planning Officers are (literally) above the law - you'd be wrong...

The novel is about far more than the effects of the One-Child Policy though.  The family's flight southwards allows the writer to take aim at several other contemporary Chinese issues.  Some of them are environmental, such as the effect on the communities forcibly relocated to make way for the impending Three Gorges Dam and the horrific pollution caused by the dumping of recycled electronic products in Guangdong Province.  The picture Ma paints of this part of China is not a pretty one.

However, the novel also explores the plight of the 'peasant' in a country where (as was the case in countries like France and Russia centuries ago) free movement is impossible.  Meili dreams of becoming a city dweller, but while she is able to mimic city fashions, she has little hope of actually making it one day:
"So, what documents do you need to avoid arrest?" Dai asks, brushing some white cotton fluff from his jumper.
"Identity card, health certificate, temporary urban residence permit, temporary work permit, birth permit, marriage licence..." Kongzi says, rattling off the list.  "But even if you have them all, if you are in a big town or city, and you look like a peasant, they'll still arrest you.  And once you're in handcuffs, they'll squeeze as much money from you as they can." (p.101)
With corrupt officials all around, one false step will see Meili lose all the ground she has painstakingly made over years.  It's not easy being a 'peasant'.

In the end though, the story always comes back to Meili and the fight for a chance to raise her children in freedom.  It's an incredible tale, made all the more chilling by the realisation that it's mostly true.  The writer spent time incognito in China researching the information - not only could this happen, it did, every day...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Personally, I'm undecided.  The Dark Road is an excellent book, both fascinating and compelling, but it has one flaw for me, and that is the way the writer strings the reader along with his plotting.  While it's an important novel, one which allows us to witness events we would not have been able to experience otherwise, there are far too many cliffhangers and dramatic scenes.  Ma deliberately ratchets up the tension time and time again before finally unloading the next bombshell - it's certainly effective, but I felt manipulated at times, and that took the novel down a few points in my estimation.

Will it make the shortlist?
Almost definitely.  This has all the makings of a potential winner, ticking just about every IFFP box you can think of.  In my BTBA v IFFP discussion a while back, one idea that came up was that the British prize is very much concerned with problems and social issues, and this is a fairly major one.  A couple of years back, Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village, a novel about an AIDS epidemic in China brought about by a drive for selling blood, made the shortlist (and was highly commended) - The Dark Road is a far better novel.  Don't be surprised if you see Ma Jian and Flora Drew (writer and translator, husband and wife) accepting the prize in May :)

Time to move on, and while I'd love something cheery after all these dramas, I suspect that I'm unlikely to get it.  The next stop on the tour is Iraq, and in a country devastated by war, there are pretty much guaranteed to be corpses...