The Cave Man, Xiaoda Xiao. Two Dollar Radio. 184pp, $15.50.
One of the most unfortunate and tragic legacies that the 20th century has left us is certainly the development and popularity of (what I will call here) “gulag literature.” Most famously, Solzhenitsyn did his significant part in challenging the Soviet system in the ’60s by writing about his personal experience in a gulag. Though his was hardly the first tale to take place in a camp for political prisoners, his was the first hint at popular revolt against the secret Soviet system that seemingly stood for all we (the West, as it were) stood against. Thanks to Solzhenitsyn and others, the term gulag itself has come to be shorthand for a bureaucratic mistake which leads someone to be locked up unjustly, the notion itself seems a 20th century invention. Though gulag literature is confined mainly to those writers who were imprisoned in the Soviet-era gulag system, the larger corpus of this type of writing might include general stories of exile, Holocaust camp writing, and survival stories of those kidnapped and disappeared in other bloc countries, as well as tales from Argentina and other Latin American countries in the 1970s and 1980s. This kind of literature reflects the experience (and fears) of countless millions during that violent and painfully bitter century.
Though ostensibly non-fiction, the issues and neuroses contained in this wider group of writings—starting from the early 1920s and reaching its peak in the 1960s with Solzhenitsyn—contains much in common with Kafka’s fiction. These two kinds of literature, one rooted pure in fiction, one rooted in history, reflect unique and distinct political and social developments, but there are common tropes and themes: the faceless bureaucracy, the powerless protagonists, the clichéd mode of the “everyman” (and they usually are men) who struggles to survive under the most oppressive and painful of experiences. What Kafka did that so revolutionized writing generally, and this type of “man in the cog of bureaucracy” writing particularly, was extrapolate larger political and individual meanings from it: no longer was an authoritarian system just oppressive, it was representative of existential human consciousness itself. What K or Josef K or Gregor Samsa represent, then, is not merely a man trapped in an unjust system but our human condition broadly, trapped in a world where the maneuverings of power happen somewhere off-stage, a system we are powerless to control. Yet, brilliantly, Kafka’s novels still represent his time and place in a very specific way, and these works could not have been written in any other century except the 20th.
That said, literature written from the perspective of a prisoner is not new: from Dostoevsky to Tolstoy to The Count of Monte Cristo, the story of a confined protagonist is ripe with possibilities and easily symbolic in considering humanity’s place in the cosmos (in society, in a political system, in a nationalistic fervour). Unfortunately, it’s also a dangerous form of literature to write about, not least of which because of the large body of clichés surrounding the notion of “the human spirit” and what it is capable of.
Critical concerns have long dogged gulag literature: the perspective is too myopic, the crimes (or supposed crimes) are given too much gravity and power. Protagonists are too often defiant, too rarely regretful, and the temptation to martyr oneself is usually too great to be resisted. The entire catalog of terms like “freedom of spirit,” “individual freedom,” and “spirit of survival” have lost their power precisely because they have been used so frequently in this mode of literature (and, in particular, in writing about this literature). Much of this criticism has its source not in the specific experiences that the protagonist is suffering through but by measure of his editorializing (i.e., justifying) his actions which led to persecution. Yet, editorializing about one’s experience under an oppressive system is vital to any tale about someone’s attempt at surviving an injustice.
Since the fall of the Soviet system 20 years ago, gulag literature has been on its way to becoming merely a historical footnote. That is until certain Chinese writers began writing about their experiences in Chinese labor camps. There are countless examples of these now, and a cynical mind might assert that their popularity in the West reflects a western imagination lacking in possible outlets for those who live under alternative political systems. Where are, after all, the stories of those who have been shuttered away in our own Gulag (Guantanamo) for nearly 10 years? Why aren’t publishers lining up to publish these stories? More than this, why does so much of Chinese literature available today reflect such overt political concerns? This kind of writing makes up a tiny fraction of what is published every year inside the Chinese-speaking world, yet it seems the only literature that western publishers are interested in printing.
Xiada Xiao’s novel The Cave Man continues the 20th-century tradition of gulag literature on the surface, but reflects a Chinese sensibility. It begins in typical fashion: prisoner Ja Feng struggles to keep his mind and body intact during months of solitary confinement. He reflects back on his earlier life before arrest and the circumstances that led to his imprisonment. He is cold, hungry, starved for companionship. It’s an old story. What initially sets Ja Feng’s experience apart from the usual gulag crimes is that Ja Feng is innocent. It’s not just that he is morally innocent of the crime—his arrest and imprisonment seem to be a mistake of association. In that sense, Xiao’s novel has more in common with Kafka’s novels than the larger body of gulag literature that The Cave Man is a part of.
Ja Feng’s crimes seem to be less about a challenge to the system than about the machinations of fate on the “common” man. In this, the novel truly begins to take on a new direction, and I think it reflects the tilt of the Chinese sensibility. Whereas Josef K, K, or Gregory Samsa struggle to maintain an individual identity throughout their experience (even in “The Metamorphosis,” where Gregor Samsa is physically changed into an insect), Ja Feng never questions his powerlessness. Moreover, his experience is not likened to any quest for personal freedom or identity. It’s not a tale of survival, it’s not a tale of human dignity even. It’s about how one man reintegrates himself into society. This is an important distinction, for if gulag literature does nothing else, it celebrates the dignity of human individualism lost in a society where individualism is dangerous. Xiao’s novel, on the other hand, makes no claim to any individual identity for its protagonist; it’s not even about survival of a prison sentence or unjust conviction. It’s about starting over, becoming a whole man again after being branded a political prisoner.
Upon his release on a technicality, Ja Feng returns to his sister’s home with the hope of carrying on his life after years of imprisonment. But life has gone on without him and he has no hope of recapturing the lost time: no one can connect to Ja Feng in any meaningful way, not his former fiancée, nor his daughter (who now claims another man as her father), nor his sister or her husband or their child. His family connections have reached a point of no turning back, and thus his quest is to find some sort of human connection; it is this aim which drives the plot of the novel.
There are few moral questions here, and almost no editorializing by Ja Feng about his experience. Though he suffers (he is aimless, shiftless, seems to be the victim of occasional episodes of post-traumatic stress), his suffering is always contextualized in terms of his role in society: where is his place in his family, with his child, with the wife of a fellow prisoner, Wei Gui, executed before Ja Feng’s release? But these are only moral questions that the reader can guess at—they are never addressed or even hinted at. There is, really, only one moment in the novel where any sort of moral question is raised:
“Wei Guo wouldn’t have been tortured and executed like that if there is a God, and I wouldn’t have been arrested without committing any crime at all or been locked in a solitary cell for nine months simply because I wanted justice to be done.”
“That’s because God takes a nap sometimes, just as we human beings do. And when he falls asleep everything goes wrong,” she said. . . . “It’s the truth,” she declared, “Sooner or later, everybody will believe in God, because only He is immortal.”
The moral is that God just falls asleep sometimes and let’s bad things happen? It’s like “Nietzsche-light,” an odd moment in an otherwise godless book that asks no additional moral questions, certainly doesn’t try to decipher the meaning of suffering in any ontological context. And this is what makes The Cave Man puzzling: Ja Feng never rails at the injustice done to him, he never questions his place, he never reflects on his experience at all. One gets the sense that if he’d been born a rich socialite in Hong Kong and never spent a day in prison, he would have the same approach—the same struggles—he does after suffering the brutal oppression of authoritarian China. It’s hard to see what effect his imprisonment has had on him (beyond incidental effects like his screaming nightmares and the fact that he is branded a political prisoner).
This raises interesting questions, in that Kafka’s narrators and protagonists also never editorialize. They never question “Why me”? It’s as if the most base of animal-survival reflexes kick in and the only necessity becomes survival. But Kafka’s stories are purely fiction, and this is an important distinction since fiction allows a symbolic interpretation of a character and his experience. As noted earlier, Kafka’s characters represent men on a symbolic plane which allow a reader wide variation in interpretation. Does Gregor Samsa and his metamorphosis represent a man living under oppression? Does he represent human consciousness itself? Is it about power? Bureaucracy? All of this? None of it?
The Cave Man is ostensibly a novel, but its assertions about the author’s own experience in and survival from a Chinese labor camp complicate the reader’s role here. A symbolic oppression by a fictional character in Kafka opens up fields of interpretation. A fictionalized account of a true-life experience requires more about the experience and what it means. It’s not that a real life experience can’t be made symbolic or interpretatively complex, but a reader also expects editorializing about the experience. It’s a question of intent and a question of audience. A symbolic man who doesn’t editorialize is a man without a conscience and this lack of a conscience itself can be a political statement, perhaps, or a even symbolic flaw. An autobiographical man, if he is believable, complex, and subtle, requires a conscience. An autobiographical man’s experiences, in other words, only become interpretatively complex in the reflection on what those experiences mean—to the protagonist, to the reader, to the society.
These are contentious issues, to be sure, but one gets a sense while reading The Cave Man that the “facts” of the story are driving the plot, a laundry list of experiences that the writer simply has to get through. Without some reflection, either by the protagonist or by the narrator or by some character, the story feels aimless, pointless; Ja Feng wanders from place to place, from woman to woman, goes in and out of jail, feigns mental illness (or not?), gets into fights, starts businesses that fail, in a seemingly endless repetition of cycles of up and down. Are we to surmise that the author has no moral qualms about what happened to him, how the experience changed him? Are we, the readers, not privy to such personal thoughts? If we aren’t told what the experience to the protagonist/author, what conclusions are we to draw from its retelling? The end is even more puzzling, feeling slapped together as if the author had to end it somehow under the gun (five or six major plot points raced out in the final three pages). By the end, I just felt confused: I was left to draw my own conclusions about the tale since the narrator/protagonist/author refused to do anything of the sort.
That is not to say that autobiographical novels should be didactic. But even if moralizing or editorializing are purely personal insights, we want to see where the protagonist has “gone” on this journey in terms of his development. Beginning writing students often struggle with the balance between giving the facts of a story and reflecting on what the story and the events in an experience mean. A story, in other words, is not just a collection of plot points that state what happened. Readers want more: images, asides, explanations. But in the middle of The Cave Man, one is tempted to stop and ask, “Why are you telling me all this?”
Unlike much gulag literature, where the aim seems to be physical freedom first and spiritual, individual freedom later, Ja Feng’s aim seems merely to find a way to integrate himself into society, to come to terms with his experience not so that he can gain a deeper understanding of himself but so that he can find a place in his milieu whereby he is normal yet again. “So what I’m expecting, he thought, is the ordinary life that these young guys have.” The only kind of justice, then, is his aim at finding a job, finding love, finding a bigger apartment, and re-establishing a relationship with his estranged daughter. Yet, again, we don’t ever witness any thoughts about this: no motivations, no decisions, just his attempts at reaching out and it going awry. How is this “rift” from normal society different from any other rift which makes people struggle?
The author, like many others in this era of Chinese literature being made accessible to the West, seems to have missed an opportunity to help establish a new kind of gulag literature that could speak to modern minds about our new political realities (in China or anywhere else). Isn’t there a more complex reality we can witness, instead of something that was done (much better) sixty years ago?
Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer and translator based in Montreal. His writing on and translations of Chinese poetry and short stories have appeared in various publications.
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