Friday, October 20, 2006

Losing My Religion

Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian. Farrar Straus Giroux. 92 Pages. $14.00.

In 1985, the dissident author Ma Jian, already on the lam from authorities in his native China, took a trip through Tibet, hoping to leave a soulless and regimented society for a peaceful and meditative one. He was in for a shock. The Chinese occupation had all but crushed the country and its spirit. Poverty was rampant, the people had turned bitter and violent. Their temples were in ruins, secured by armed guards and defaced with Marxist slogans. Jian had hoped to reconnect with his Buddhist faith. Instead, he lost it.

"I felt empty and helpless," he writes, "as pathetic as a patient who sticks out his tongue and begs his doctor to diagnose what's wrong with him."

This small book of short stories was his answer; a grim artistic diagnosis of Tibet. It had the effect of a small earthquake. As soon as it was published in China in 1987 in the journal People's Literature, it was denounced as pornography, banned, and ushered in a crackdown on artistic freedom.

Only just now appearing in this country, Jian's book shows Tibet as a circle of hell, where the people have little more to feed on than each other, and civilization is gradually receding to barbarism. Incest, rape and destruction are repeated themes, possibly something of a metaphor for the country's relationship with China.

As Luis Bunuel showed in his 1934 documentary Las Hurdes, grinding, unrelenting poverty has a natural relationship with the surreal; life gets so horrible it borders the absurd, a nightmare of hunger and want that you can't escape. Jian's stories -- most of them told by a traveling photographer -- are also hallucinatory and otherworldly, often blending day to day horror with religious imagery. Lakes are formed by the piss of a goddess, old men drink the blood from the throat of a yak, the rotten carcass of a thieving woman winds up nailed for eternity to the wall of a monastery, and another woman's frozen body turns transparent, with fish swimming through her intestines.

Our narrator is no less overwhelmed than his readers. "It felt as though a crack had formed around my skull," he says at one point, "and that at any moment my crown would lift like the lid of an observatory."

In "The Woman and the Blue Sky" our narrator gets a chance to photograph a rare funeral rite. By way of a soldier, he hears the story of the life of the deceased, a 17-year-old girl named Myima, who is sold by her mother, molested by her adoptive father, then married off to two brothers who take turns raping her. After she dies in childbirth, her body is burned, hacked apart and fed to vultures -- used up in death as she was in life. A similar cycle of misery is recounted in "The Eight-Fanged Roach" where the photographer meets an old man who is hoping to "wash his sins away in the sacred waters of Lake Mansarobar." He has a lot of sins, too; he slept with his mother, who conceived a daughter, who grows up to fall prey to her own father.

In "The Final Initiation," an average young girl named Sangsang Tashi finds her life turned upside down when she is declared the reincarnation of the recently-deceased Living Buddha; she tries to believe in her destiny as hard as she can, but the whole process only ends up killing her.

Individually, these stories are all somewhat abstract and ambiguous; as a whole they create an imaginative and disturbing vision of life at its most oppressive.

"For Tibetans," Jian writes, "death isn't a sad occasion, merely a different phase of life."

It's a life that is compellingly sad.

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