STICK OUT YOUR TONGUE
By Ma Jian
Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew
Farrar Straus Giroux. 93 pp. $16
When Westerners think of Tibet, they often visualize austere holy men and hardy peasants in cracked leather headgear; they picture lush hidden valleys or the snow-capped vistas of the Himalayas. There, nourished on yak butter and the pure, thin air of the mountains, people live out long lives of simplicity and serenity, and they welcome death itself with gentle courtesy.
It's certainly a pretty postcard, and one that anybody worn down by industrial civilization occasionally likes to pick up and daydream over. But if Ma Jian's Stick Out Your Tongue is to be believed, modern Tibet is rather more like Tobacco Road than Shangri-La.
These short stories -- vignettes, really -- disclose a sad, inbred land of loneliness and desperation. A dead 17-year-old girl, pregnant with an unborn fetus, is torn and chopped to pieces by the two brothers who had shared her. A woman suckles her son until he is 14, then sleeps with him and bears a daughter; the daughter in turn is eventually forced to submit to her father's sexual hunger. In one story, a minor character mentions in passing that an uncle had once traveled to the city of Saga to learn the black arts. During an initiation ceremony, "the Living Buddha Danba Dorje ripped out his uncle's eyes, pulled out his tongue, chopped off his hand and offered the severed parts to Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion."
Sometimes the narrator of these stories appears to be Ma Jian himself, recalling his experiences in Tibet after fleeing the oppressions of his native China. At other times, we are inside the mind of a Tibetan schoolboy lost in the mountains or of a very young girl facing ritual sex, in public, with a repulsive and ancient priest. The author describes everything, no matter how horrible, with unnerving calmness, whether it's eating congealed animal blood or almost touching the dried-out, wafer-thin body of a woman hung like a piece of parchment on the wall of a hut.
In the afterword to this English translation -- which doesn't read like a translation at all, thanks to Flora Drew -- the author tells us that, back in 1985, Stick Out Your Tongue was banned by the Chinese government "as a vulgar and obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots." The announcement then went on to say that "Ma Jian fails to depict the great strides the Tibetan people have made in building a united, prosperous and civilised Socialist Tibet." As usual, the censors got it wrong. If anything, Ma Jian reveals the harshness of all too ordinary Tibetan life and, quite simply, how "dehumanising extreme hardship can be." The culprit doesn't seem to be socialism or modernity so much as ancient traditions that treat the human body and sometimes human life with contempt. That said, Ma Jian also notes that Lhasa itself has now "become a dirty, polluted city like any other you might find in China, with karaoke bars and massage parlours and gaudy neon signs."
Can't human beings ever get the balance right, even in the holiest lands? Now and again, Ma Jian gives us glimpses of something better: "In the grasslands, if you have a rifle, some gunpowder, a horse and a dog, you can feed on gazelles and wild deer, and sleep for free under the stars." But before long we cast aside these pastoral interludes and are back to a world where the narrator, like some latter-day W. Somerset Maugham, hears stories of lustful wives impaled on pillars while trying to steal a holy relic made of beaten gold.
Obviously, an American reader can hardly be certain that Stick Out Your Tongue offers an accurate portrait of the Tibetan peasantry. Perhaps Ma Jian, like one of our own Southern Gothic writers, has created a fantasy Tibet of incest, depravity and madness. But he himself rightly notes that to idealize any people is to deny them their humanity. These powerful pages, so convincing in what appears an unflinching naturalism, are hard to shake from one's memory and remain, if nothing else, testimony to the storytelling artistry of Ma Jian. Still, it's little wonder that the pieces were once suppressed and that their author now lives in London. ·
Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World and the author of "Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life," which has just been published. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m., he conducts an online book discussion at washingtonpost.com.