In his first book, The Cave Man, Xiaoda Xiao approached his seven years in one of Mao’s labor camps as fiction; in his second, he presents it as a series of short-story recollections, “transformed by memory, imagination and time,” but with all the unresolved threads and inconclusive narratives expected from a life lived at others’ control. Fellow prisoners get transferred or die, their fates unknown; incidents are presented for their own inherent pungency rather than metaphoric import. Xiao’s plainly written, unemotional style presents gulag life without redundantly overemoting at the horror of it all.
As a drunk 20-year-old, Xiao used a Mao poster to wipe up a spill and promptly turned himself over the police. Though they initially believed that he was just drunk, he was eventually charged with “viciously attacking the Great Leader” and sentenced to five years of labor, though he stayed behind another two years to keep working. What happened during his labor stint will be no surprise to anyone who’s read up on the Cultural Revolution (or just seen The Last Emperor): regular sessions for “thought reform” and “self-criticism,” filthy barracks life surrounded by informers, and the slow, unnoticed transition to acceptance.
Xiao’s stories are familiar but specific in their details, quietly aware of the ways one quick miscalculation can leave lifelong scars. On his first night, Xiao feigns insanity, and winds up handcuffed so tightly, his arms “looked like dark hams hung in the butcher shop.” “Remember not to work against the proletarian dictatorship,” the prisoner-surgeon tells him, “or just look at the rings on your arms. They’ll stay with you for the rest of your life.” Xiao fluidly moves back and forth from victim to vindictive actor without noticing the change in himself, taking silent revenge against his tormentors in the bathrooms at night and adjusting to the norms by imperceptible degrees.
All Xiao’s stories are short and compelling, honing in on one aspect of prison life without fussiness, often almost wishfully effacing himself. The standout tale “Li Minchu—The Cost Of A Dream” exemplifies the kind of inadvertent surrealism totalitarian regimes produce, the story of a man who dreams of Nixon and Mao signing an agreement of amnesty for all political prisoners, but ends up dead when his retold dream turns into actual rumors of amnesty. Unforced black humor is found in the cagey banter of official euphemism. Asked about his crime, a butcher replies “I didn’t pay enough attention to my thoughts. That’s why I fell into the rotten quagmire of capitalism, and became a criminal to the Party and the people.” More specifically? “I had inappropriate relations with women when I was drunk.” “In short, you’re a rapist,” the officer replies. Xiao allows himself only one big irony, too good to make up: The day of his release is the day of Mao’s death, and a poster of the deceased leader confronts him as soon as he emerges to freedom. For the most part, he lets the details do the talking; his book is better for it.