[Paleopsych] Am Prospect: Noodling Around With Russian Lit

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Noodling Around With Russian Lit
    Chinese author Ma Jian is inspired by Gogol in The Noodle Maker.

    By [2]Christopher Byrd
    Web Exclusive: 04.15.05

    Literature is a form of consolation. Even when its obtuse or wanton in
    its provocation, literature reminds us of our humanity in its frailty,
    depravity, and splendor. Since politics is often beset by memory loss,
    its deducible why from the era of the ancient Greeks to the present,
    literature has pointed to the human costs that accompany historical
    activity. Ma Jians novel, The Noodle Maker(Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
    translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew), is written in this vein.
    In a series of arch narratives that comment on Chinas push to
    modernity, Ma writes about the fallout of the governments effort to
    streamline its citizens behavior. With parabolic flair, he coaxes from
    the legacy of Premier Deng Xiaopings Open Door Policy a book that is
    funny, sad, and preoccupied with the idea of consolation.

    The tension between modernity and nationalism, which captivated many
    of the Great Russian novelists, provides a launch pad for the book. In
    December 1978, Premier Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms
    geared toward attracting Western investors. While this Open Door
    Policy led to an influx of Western culture, the government policed
    these influences; herein is the seed for The Noodle Maker. The
    narrative, which is artfully self-conscious, turns around a Sunday
    dinner between friends whose occupations all but mythically complement
    one another. The stories told between Sheng (the professional writer)
    and his friend Vlazerim (the professional blood donor) are the source
    material for the writers unwritten novel. Aside from the drudgery of
    writing, a fear of the governments disapproval shadows him. Given that
    government reprisal includes but is not limited to loss of job, home,
    and political standing, an atmosphere of consequence quickens the
    novel, giving the stories culled from the writers immediate
    surroundings an aura of illicit -- albeit fantastic -- communiqués.

    This samizdat element is accentuated not only by the fact that the
    writer was once charged by the Chinese government of spiritual
    pollution (he later emigrated from China to England) but also by
    literary design. The professional writer cites a love of Gogol, Gorky,
    and Hans Andersen, authors whose books authorities confiscated from
    library shelves. While the influence of each of these writers is
    detectable, what is most conspicuous is the association of The Noodle
    Maker with that of Russian literature. Confronted with the history of
    Chinas totalitarian rule -- and here one thinks of Russia -- surely
    its a guilty thanks one feels for literature born out of political
    duress; especially when the work so successfully subordinates its
    political concerns to its aesthetic ones. By not mistaking fiction for
    reportage, The Noodle Maker, like The Master and the Margarita, uses
    the imagination -- mans last refuge, and most subversive tool, to
    create a compelling experience that also undresses a repressive
    political climate.

    Commissioned by the Party Secretary of the local Writers Association
    to write a novel portraying a modern-day successor to the selfless,
    national hero Lei Feng, the writer is torn between the need to please
    the authorities and the lure of his imagination. The stories, which he
    interweaves together, revolve around a crematorium director and his
    mother, a forlorn actress, a street writer, a philandering editor and
    his shrewish wife, and a three-legged dog and his sycophantic
    caretaker. As youve no doubt surmised, they dont exactly mesh with the
    socialist consciousness, idealized in Lei Feng.

    The characters from the writers unwritten novel suffer from pressures
    universals and particular. The crematorium director who uses, among
    other entrepreneurial skills, an extensive music collection -- pulsing
    with banned Western songs -- to establish a successful business, feels
    suffocated in the rinky-dink living space he shares with his mother,
    whos also his business partner. As a release, hes developed a fondness
    for kicking dead bureaucrats. A more tangible consolation, possibly,
    than the music he sells to aggrieved families to be played, not for
    their own sake, but for the benefit of the deceased.

    Once involved with the blood donor and the writer, the actress, Su
    Yun, is a woman on the verge of a breakdown. In love with the owner of
    the three-legged dog, she pines for his attention and sets up a plan
    to turn his head: She decides to perform a public suicide. Enlisting
    the support of a club, which caters to the Western pretensions of its
    clientele, Su Yun fumbles through a black comedy. The actress, though
    locked in her despondency, makes some trenchant observations about the
    modern Chinese womans predicament:

      She wondered how these poor souls [men] could ever hope to find a
      graceful companion among a generation of women who had grown up
      reading Analysis of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and The
      Fall of Chiang Kaishek. Todays women are corrupted. How can you
      expect a girl who has grown up reading Selected Writings of Mao
      Zedong to be cultivated, elegant or refined?

    This feeling of inadequacy -- of an ill preparedness for modern life
    -- that Su Yun articulates, reverberates throughout the other stories
    usually presaging dismal consequences.

    For the editor, his erstwhile promise as a young, patriotic writer
    ceases to hold the attention of his wife, a professional novelist,
    whose Western-inspired taste initially outpaces his own.
    Unfortunately, her succès destime is short lived:

      When Old Heps wife started sounding off about Hemingways The Old
      Man and the Sea, the young women drifted to the corner of the room
      to discuss Heidegger and Robbe-Grillet. Her favorite topic of
      conversation -- her memories of the Cultural Revolution and life in
      the re-education camp -- meant nothing to them. They treated her
      with the detached indifference with which they would treat anyone
      else of their parents generation.

    Ma is excellent at rendering the ambivalence shared by people whose
    lives have been molded by an authoritarian state apparatus. (Indeed,
    even the writer dreams about his name appearing in The Great
    Dictionary of Chinese Writers.)

    Like the crematorium director, the blood donor is an entrepreneur who
    uses the loopholes of the system to further his interests. This is a
    good thing for the writer, who partakes of his friends food rations. A
    man of action, the blood donors ripostes to the writer are formidable:

      Do you have a motorbike? Do you have tickets for the next weeks
      concert? Do you have FECs [foreign exchange credits]. Can you take
      a woman into a hotel where foreigners stay? Your years salary isnt
      enough to buy one pair of Italian shoes. Not everyone can see
      things like you do. But if I could write, Im sure Id be a better
      writer than you. I know about the real world. You just write in
      order to fill your inner void, you have no experiences to draw
      from. You see life in terms of tragedy and myth. You are obsessed
      by your fear of death. But death is something everyone has to go
      through, theres nothing particularly interesting about it.

    As their conversation seeps further into the night, so does their
    inquiry into whether its best to accept the world with its constraints
    or to follow ones lofty ideas to the end. The conclusion of the novel
    suggests a synthesis is possible. It seems to say, somewhere, theres a
    hazy meridian where the mind is engaged and the body reconciled to the
    demands of its history.

    Christopher Byrd is a writer living in Maryland. His work has appeared
    in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Wilson Quarterly, and

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