THE DARK ROAD. By Ma Jian. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew. Penguin Press. 375 pages. $27.
Ma Jian’s work has been garnering attention since his 1987 publication “Stick Out Your Tongue” prompted the Chinese government to ban his future works.
Since that time, the exiled dissident has continued to offer unflinching criticism of Chinese politics, earning him a reputation as a confrontational and defiant author.
His newest novel, “The Dark Road,” was written after Ma Jian’s mission to rural China to gather information on how the government’s one-child policy is enforced. The novel follows one family who loses everything in an attempt to gain the most basic of human rights.
Meili is a pregnant peasant woman, wife of Kongzi, the village schoolteacher, and mother of three-year-old daughter Nannan.
Though their poverty-stricken rural village is far from the bright lights of Shanghai and Beijing, the couple cannot escape the country’s strict one-child policy.
In the opening pages of the novel, there is hope that the family can hide the pregnancy and continue to lead their quiet lives in peace. One night, however, Family Planning Officers raid their village, tasked with enforcing the one-child policy by any means.
The town quickly turns into chaos as women are captured and undergo forced sterilizations and abortions in some graphically rendered scenes that show that “the Communist Party has no humanity. For them, killing a baby is no different than swatting a fly.”
In an attempt to save their growing family, the couple makes the decision to set out on a voyage down the Yangtze River.
What follows is uncomfortable to read. The family joins the leagues of others living as refugees in their own country as they dodge the government’s Family Planning agents. These are places where “an oily film of pollution hovers on the river’s surface. Along the bank, the willow’s branches bend under the weight of litter while their tips struggle upwards towards the sun.” The water is dark red and “smells of dung and rotten fish.” The ducks feed on chemical waste and “taste of sulfur, and their stomachs are filled with plastic screws and nylon string.”
It is tough to endure the continual misfortunes that befall the family, especially Meili who is victimized by everyone, including her husband and her government.
Meili once believed, “that the government protects and cares for the people, and that husbands protect and care for their wives. ... She discovered that women don’t own their bodies: their wombs and genitals are battle zones over which their husbands and the state fight for control — territories their husbands invade for sexual gratification and to produce male heirs, and which the state probes, monitors, guards and scrapes so as to assert its power and spread fear. ... All she is certain of is that she is a legal wife and an illegal mother.”
The novel, though thoroughly contemporary in its moral dilemmas and setting, becomes a mythic quest for more than the successful birth of a child.
One character notes of Meili, “You’re like the heroine of a Victorian novel, rebelling against oppressive convention in the pursuit of happiness. Yes, you have that air of stubborn defiance.”
The author’s previous novels are more steeped in magical realism, but traces still exist in the use of classic symbols and in the occasional narration of Meili’s “infant spirit.” The translation is taut and somewhat dry, though it fittingly mirrors the emotional apathy of the characters.
“The Dark Road” is truly one of the bleakest novels in contemporary literature, but it is a fascinating glimpse into a government and moral landscape that seems otherworldly. Ma Jian continues to prove that his gaze and his pen are unflinching.
Reviewer Summer Mauldin is an editor and writer in Charleston.