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“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


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The Noodle Maker - Ma Jian, Flora Drew Ma Jian is a Chinese writer and a dissident. He was born in 1953, so he is part of the generation of Chinese who lived through Mao's Cultural Revolution as children and young adults, as well as seeing the implementation -- and the limitations -- of Deng Xiaoping's Open Door economic policy. Ma has not been a silent observer of the myriad ways in which the Chinese government has cracked down on freedom of expression in Chinese society; he has been a member of the dissident community of Chinese artists and writers for decades, both while living in China and Hong Kong, and later from exile in Europe. Ma has suffered for his outspokenness. His [b:Stick Out Your Tongue|389681|Stick Out Your Tongue|Ma Jian||379297], published in 1987, was censured and his writings were banned by the Chinese government -- a ban that extended to his future publications.

Ma Jian

In addition to his earlier commitment to the dissident arts community in China, Ma participated in the 1989 democracy protests in Beijing, which culminated in the Tiananmen Massacre. In the devastating aftermath of this brutal crackdown, Ma remained in Beijing and wrote [b:The Noodle Maker|321223|The Noodle Maker|Ma Jian||311956], an extremely dark satire fueled by Ma's anger and disillusionment with Chinese communist society and politics. The novel is framed by an ongoing conversation between a professional blood donor, who has made millions giving blood and providing others with the means to do so despite limitations of height, weight, or frequency of past donations, and a professional writer, who blends his observations of the world around him with his consideration of the characters that populate a novel he is writing, who often seem more real to him than the people he sees around him every day. That interspersing of reality and fantasy holds true throughout [b:The Noodle Maker|321223|The Noodle Maker|Ma Jian||311956], which includes healthy strains of surrealism as we move from framing discussions and interjections from the blood donor and the writer, and stories which introduce us to different characters who are dysfunctionally trying to negotiate life in a society where compassion is difficult to find, where empty slogans guide people's lives, where progress is measured not in terms of happiness or fulfillment, but in terms of economic production, material signs of Westernization, and complete adherence to the latest government dictates.

The novel's stories combine dark flights of fantasy with brutal action. In one story, an entrepreneur buys a ceramics furnace and opens a crematorium along with his elderly mother, in which he provides a special twist -- mourners can pay for him to play specific musical selections while their loved ones are being cremated. In another, an actress decides on her final performance -- committed suicide on stage by being eaten by a tiger. In the most horrifying scene in the novel, a man and his companion, a three-legged dog who speaks Chinese, watch from their terrace as a girl is gang raped. A huge crowd of onlookers gathers and watches, as a group of police slowly try to reach the girl and some government officials hold a meeting -- during the rape -- to decide what actions to take. Ma Jian writes with a white-hot anger that practically drips off the page.

This novel accomplished exactly what Ma wanted it to. The characters and stories haunt me. I can't shake them off. As an anguished cry against the inhumanity of life in Communist China, which Ma has devoted his life to fighting, [b:The Noodle Maker|321223|The Noodle Maker|Ma Jian||311956] is disturbing and difficult to read, but profoundly affecting, one of the strongest examples I have read of dark social satire.

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