Ma Jian’s Odyssey

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. Continue reading

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