02 February 2008

Protest Literature

In an attempt to raise the quality of literature mentioned here and transfer some of the best of the old ReadingOnTheWeb to this venue, I dug up this oldie. I wrote this in another lifetime (in June of 2001).

Back in the strange times of the 1960s, I had an inspiring teacher of Russian history. Russian politics were as mysterious then as they are now; the stakes don't seem quite so high these days (though they probably are). I got intrigued with Russian literature and then with Soviet literature and then with dissident literature. (I even tried teaching myself the Russian alphabet so I could hear the poetic words of Babi Yar.)

The protest literature was wonderful: full of allusions and analogies and insiders' jokes insults and attacks.

It was a window into a world of large and petty injustices, absurdities and tyrannies. And, in spite of being a creative sign of life and hope, the books seemed to express hopelessness--the hopelessness of the individual pitted against totalitarian government, true believers, and culture. (The Cancer Ward comes to mind just now.) Even the funny ones were depressing (The Fur Hat, for example.)

Well, I got back into that "world" when I read Zhang Jie's As Long As Nothing Happens Nothing Will.
  • The stories may be about China in the 1970s and '80s.
  • Zhang Jie (a 60-year-old writer who sacrificed literature for the country and Party by studying economics, and who was sacrificed by the Party and country during the Cultural Revolution and who didn't begin writing until the 1970s) may be a popular Chinese novelist.
  • She may have won "China's most prestigious literary award" [book jacket blurb].

But she's writing exactly the same kinds of stories the Russian dissidents did.
  • There's the peasant village artisan whose craftsmanship entrances a wealthy tourist from the Philippines. When she invites him to Manila for an exhibit of his work, he becomes the toast of the provincial town near his village--until the invitation falls through.
  • There's the story of the "free" cat and its "unfree' master.
  • Another about the struggling doctor whose invitation to a medical seminar to learn surgical techniques is transformed by the machinations of politics into a trip to England for the hospital's Party cadre.
  • And when an timid-but-critically-thinking professor does get to go abroad, his bladder infection makes it impossible for the Party chaperone to keep track of both him and the rest of the group.

The stories bring to mind Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil."

They suggest also something from Kathleen Norris: the smaller the community and the stakes, the more vicious the infighting.

The worst part was that the stories kept reminding me of school.

See also: Zhang Jie

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