Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Noodle Maker (Ma Jian)

What Ma Jian has created with The Noodle Maker is a collection of lifestyles and ideals that grew under China's Cultural Revolution, were affected by the years that followed the adoption of the Open Door Policy while still under the Party's all-seeing gaze, and survived the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square incident. Here, a professional writer and his friend the professional blood donor meet regularly to chat and dine. The professional writer has been charged with creating propaganda about a hero who embodies the Party's ideals when all he wants to do is to write about the people who intrigue him. So it is to the professional blood donor that he confesses and this serves as the framework for this collection of tales.

There was a kind of horror and disbelief that I experienced when I first read Ma Jian's Stick Out Your Tongue. He was not shocking just to be shocking; there was a sorrow that permeated his writing, one that truly drew me in. That shocking feeling was absent for me here in The Noodle Maker but whether it is deliberately gone or I am merely used to his style is still open to debate. The sorrow is still there though, in the lives of people who wish to be more. Here the tales are similarly stark, and even if the characters branch off in different directions (an actress with an unusual idea for a live performance, the young man who runs a private crematorium with an added service) they find their lives weaving in and out of each other.

The collection is filled with truths that can be disconcerting and uncomfortable, moments of sharp insight. One of my favorites is a conversation between the professional writer and the female novelist about young writers. The female novelist is bemoaning the new generation's shallowness, to which the professional writer counters, 'Perhaps a purer form of literature will emerge from their numb minds. They have no prejudices, no interest in politics. Their problems are purely personal(p86-87).' In their exchange, I feel bitterness and resentment, even at the professional writers' words, despite his obvious defense. He is merely stating fact: '[the female novelist's] time is already over(p87).' Here is a generation introduced to the Self after years of dealing with just the State.

There are really so many layers that one can uncover while reading The Noodle Maker. Ma Jian's writing makes even the most jarring images a source of reflection not just of the self, but also of the world that controls us.

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