Red Dust (2002) is marketed as a travel book, and I picked it up because travel books are appreciated in my household – any interesting one is a good present to bring home. And it is a great travel book, an account of Ma’s wanderings around China in the mid-1980s, with the travel book requisites of an outsider’s empathetic but detached and wry observations about people and places we don’t know ourselves. The sense of the separation between places – especially in the countryside, where the country’s big cities, or any city at all, seem to have mythical status – is vividly conveyed, as are the institutions of party and state, which bind together and control even the most remote parts. Poverty and emerging wealth, material progress and pollution, cruelty and kindness are all delivered economically, showing rather than telling, mostly in sketches of people Ma meets and of their circumstances. Whether for understanding people, or the country in a particular period, the book is well worthwhile.
But if Red Dust is a travel book, then Homer’s Odyssey is a travel book. Or, rather, Red Dust is a recent entry in the honorable roll of books modeled on The Odyssey. The latter I’ll admit to not having read since I was fourteen, though in the past year I’ve refreshed my memory reading, to my son, Rosemary Sutcliff’s Wanderings of Odysseus and, to myself, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (both of which I recommend). In that frame Ma’s hero, his younger self, seems quite familiar – often imperiled, cunning, endlessly resourceful, and fated to return home late and alone. Lost in a dessert, exhausted and dehydrated, he collapses just short of his goal, only to be rescued and dragged to the roadside by a stranger, like Ulysses on some new island (this happens to Ma at least twice, in different desserts). Crossing a river on a bamboo raft he is saved from being sucked into a whirlpool only to be thrown at the bottom on a cliff that looks to be his death – Charybdis, Scylla. He is always being washed up on a new shore, facing new perils. When two thieves seize his precious camera, he presents himself as a thief, and gets the two as drunk as the cyclops Polyphemus, keeping himself sober with the ancient trick of letting the wine trickle down through his beard. He takes on other guises, both to escape from the authorities or to eat: once he spends his last money on a comb and scissors, in order to set up as a street barber; once, his apposite comments on the feng shui of a house earn him room and board for some time, and a generous parting gift for his services as a sage; in both cases he walks away with his pockets full and casts off the guise as easily as he assumed it.
The sense that Ma has arranged his travel diary on a scaffolding of myth is compounded by the omnipresence in the text of Ma’s camera, together with the complete absence of photographs in the published book (each chapter is prefaced by a nice hand-drawn map). This is the camera he risks his life to recover from thieves; the best traveled citizen of a remote village in Yunnan, an old teacher who once saw Beijing, informs a policeman that it is “worth three tractors”. All photographs from the Northwest, we are told, were lost when police ransacked the home of the friend who was developing them. As Ma is about to snap what should be an astonishing frame of a sky burial in Tibet, his shutter freezes. In the end the camera is in the story just to ease us, and we’re probably better off without the pixelated particulars, which would bring this wonderful story with its startling verbal images, too close to earth.