The Noodle Maker,
by Ma Jian. Translated from the Chinese
by Flora Drew. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 192 pages, $21.
The pace of change in China over the last 15 years has been extraordinarily fast; the pace at which its literature reaches us in translation, shamefully slow. Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian is already known in the English-speaking world for his award-winning travel memoir of rural China in the 1980s, Red Dust. Since the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, he has been living with his partner and translator in London. The Noodle Maker, the first of Jian's novels to appear in English, is set soon after the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, already ancient history to today's young entrepreneurs, artists and university students.
Reading The Noodle Maker now has some of the blurred effect of a time-lapse photograph -- it is a hard-hitting satire of a cultural moment that has come and gone. Only a reviewer intimate with today's China could judge to what extent its critique is still sharp.
Perhaps this question of timeliness should be irrelevant. The Noodle Maker is fiction, after all, constructed with a good deal of artfulness on the frame of a drunken evening shared between a professional writer and his best friend, a professional blood donor.
The blood donor considers himself a practical man; he boasts of the good pay and perks he receives as rewards for being bled for the benefit of the nation. Each Sunday, he brings good food and drink to the writer, who is, of course, a poverty-stricken idealist. Their discussion is interwoven with the stories the professional writer is crafting based on people he has known: an actress who stages her own suicide; her boyfriend, a painter with a talking three-legged dog (the novel's most reliable narrator); a literary editor humiliated by the success of his wife, an acclaimed novelist; a father trying to abandon his retarded daughter; an entrepreneur whose success with a musically enhanced crematorium gives him the confidence to burn his own mother alive.
Each of these characters is manipulated not only by the noodle-making hands of the professional writer, but by a ruthless society, which with its new "Open Door Policy" has imported some superficial commercial elements of Westernness, yet still maintains a stranglehold on personal freedom. ("Imported" products as symbols of moral weakness, hypocrisy and corruption are a satiric mantra throughout the book.)
Fans of the absurdity and dark humor of Milan Kundera's portraits of life behind the Iron Curtain will appreciate these same elements in Ma Jian's work -- though Kundera is a good deal lighter on his feet, and the clever and humorous elements of The Noodle Maker struck this reviewer as heavy-handed.
As fiction that comments on social and political reality, The Noodle Maker is far less emotionally engaging than Yu Hua's Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, which tells the life of another professional blood donor, and is a character-driven social realist novel in the old 19th-century Dickensian mode, though written in a crisp contemporary style. It tells us about China, but something convincing about people, too.
For all its postmodern strands, the heart of The Noodle Maker (like all satire?) is a kind of journalism, so that ultimately its success depends on whether it still tells a timely truth.
Alane Salierno Mason is a senior editor at W.W. Norton & Co. and founding editor of Words without Borders: The Online Magazine for International Literature, www.wordswithoutborders.org. She is also the editor of Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing, forthcoming in May.