Monday, May 08, 2006

Tibet's seamier side?

A review of Ma Jian's "Stick out your tongue" in yesterday's Washington Post
These short stories -- vignettes, really -- disclose a sad, inbred land of loneliness and desperation. A dead 17-year-old girl, pregnant with an unborn fetus, is torn and chopped to pieces by the two brothers who had shared her. A woman suckles her son until he is 14, then sleeps with him and bears a daughter; the daughter in turn is eventually forced to submit to her father's sexual hunger. In one story, a minor character mentions in passing that an uncle had once traveled to the city of Saga to learn the black arts. During an initiation ceremony, "the Living Buddha Danba Dorje ripped out his uncle's eyes, pulled out his tongue, chopped off his hand and offered the severed parts to Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion."
Obviously, an American reader can hardly be certain that Stick Out Your Tongue offers an accurate portrait of the Tibetan peasantry. Perhaps Ma Jian, like one of our own Southern Gothic writers, has created a fantasy Tibet of incest, depravity and madness. But he himself rightly notes that to idealize any people is to deny them their humanity. These powerful pages, so convincing in what appears an unflinching naturalism, are hard to shake from one's memory and remain, if nothing else, testimony to the storytelling artistry of Ma Jian. Still, it's little wonder that the pieces were once suppressed and that their author now lives in London.

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