Off Topic: ‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

I’ve been reading this wonderfully dry travel memoir from early 1980s China for the last couple of days. It’s basically the story of a dissident artist who flees Beijing to escape political oppression and the pressures of his messed-up personal life and goes on a journey all over China. Think “On the Road” plus some extra bitterness, minus all the pretensions to artistic merit, plus off-hand descriptions of really, really weird food. In fact, it’s not like “On the Road” at all, but what the heck. Here’s a taste:

Finally, I reach Suida and go to find Sun Xi’s friend, the poet and doctor Yan Hu. He lets me stay in his room in the hospital dormitory block, and in the evening invites his literary friends over to meet me. We finish four bottles of rice wine and litter the floor with cigarette stubs and owl bones. We stole the bird this afternoon from a glass jar in the hospital dissection lab. It reeked of formalin, but after after braising it in ginger and soya sauce the taste was quite bearable. We embrace for jovial group photographs, then everybody starts accusing me of being a fake and a scrounger. ‘Swanning down here from the big city looking for your bloody roots. What a joke!’ Then Yan Hu mumbles from the floor, ‘I’m the only real poet in this room.’ His ambition is to secure a transfer to a Xian hospital.

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