Book review – Individuals by Lao Ma

Individuals, Flash Fiction by Lao Ma, translated by  Li Qisheng and Li Ping, Make-Do Publishing, UK, 2015, ISBN: 978-9881677532

By Michael Rank

If brevity is the soul of wit, Chinese short story writer Lao Ma 劳马 is a modern-day Voltaire or Oscar Wilde.

The book packs 55 wry and satirical stories into 178 pages, each one of them reflecting the ambitions and venalities of Chinese academics and bureaucrats caustically but not viciously, and all too recognisably.

Lao Ma, pen name of Ma Junjie 马俊杰, is no alienated outsider, holding the post of professor at Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing (see below), but he is an independent thinker who is clearly not cowed by bullying cultural bureaucrats.

laoma“A nation that can’t mock itself will always have a swaggering ego. In contemporary China this is evident in our political system, our economy and our daily lives,” he told Time Out Shanghai last year.

“The themes of my stories mostly reflect current affairs, spotlights or flash points on the current state of China,’ he added. “I’m not just an observer but a participant in my stories; I’m telling stories of the life I’m living and of those I’ve witnessed. The human failings I satirise are not just found in others but also myself.”

Neither is Lao Ma afraid to attack his fellow-writers, in particular the Party-approved Nobel prizewinner Mo Yan 莫言, whom he quotes in an introduction as saying that “a novel must be lengthy to qualify as an example of the art form.”
“According Mo, ‘Any novel less than 200,000 words lacks dignity. A leopard might be fierce and brave but he is too short in stature to be the king of the jungle. By his standards, Mo Yan is a tiger of a writer.”
Ouch. Lao Ma on the other hand clearly has no ambitions to be a writerly tiger, but he is an effective literary mosquito capable of delivering some well aimed bites at corrupt and arrogant officials, and sometimes at their naive and ignorant hangers-on too.
The stories themselves are so short as to be almost beyond summary, but involve for example a professor of philosophy who tells his students that “Only fools and idiots study philosophy, because the study of philosophy increases intelligence. Intelligent people are already intelligent, so they do not need it. Fools and idiots want to be intelligent, so they study philosophy.”
His students in fact have no wish to study such an abstruse subject and would rather be studying something practical like cookery or accountancy. They pay no attention to his lectures, and some jump out of the window to escape.
When the professor retires he gets himself a large, ugly dog which disobeys his commands. But “Despite his lifelong, vain struggle, Professor has maintained a sense of humor. The dog is called ‘Philosophy’.”
Or take the case of a man who returns from a brief trip abroad, only to be taken into quarantine as masked police officers threaten to give him an injection. Convinced he is going to be tortured he blurts out full details of his involvement in bribery and corruption as well as the names of his associates.
The story ends with the line, “On completing fifteen days quarantine in hospital he was transferred to the criminal justice system.”
The terseness of the stories means they certainly live up to the label of “flash fiction”. They are highly readable, sometimes resembling a kind of gentler Chinese Kafka, elusive and a little slight but they throw welcome light on the absurdities of Chinese society from an insider who isn’t afraid of speaking out.
A word on the translation, by Li Qisheng and Li Ping (no details available). It’s generally smooth enough, even if it tends to have a mid-Atlantic flavour which veers from American to British English somewhat uncomfortably.
I was puzzled by the fact that in a story called English Corner the 1969 pop song “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” is referred to as “He isn’t heaven, he’s my brother” and the book could have done with some more careful editing.
But we should be grateful to the publishers for introducing Lao Ma to an English-speaking readership and the author should be saluted for his outspoken wit and bravery in the face of an increasingly intolerant Chinese Communist Party.
• Lao Ma (Ma Junjie) is, despite his outspoken views, very much an insider in certain crucial respects. This Chinese-language site reveals that since June 2014 he has been secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Disciplinary Committee at Renmin University among other official posts. He was born in November 1962 and is officially classed as an ethnic Manchu.

Encounters at the End of the World

Tonight we saw the Werner Herzog film Encounters at the End of the World. Very self-indulgent I thought, with silly questions about do penguins ever go mad and much stress on the weirdness of the people who go to Antarctica as scientists, plumbers, drivers, etc. There are some wonderful sequences of people diving under the ice (they must be crazy!) and informative stuff about the hunt for neutrinos in the upper atmosphere, but it was marred by all the silly stuff and totally irrelevant anecdotes by a woman who had all kinds of adventures in Africa and whose party trick is being swung around in a small piece of hand luggage. And there was too much loud religious music, which the extraordinary Antarctic scenery simply doesn’t need and is something of a cliché with such films.