A couple of months ago, I found myself thinking a lot about Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died this week, and returning to the great books that had struck me like a tornado as an enraptured teenage reader. The reason was straightforward. Twice this spring – once for this newspaper, and once for an event at Asia House in London – I interviewed the dissident Chinese novelist Ma Jian. Both in his personal courage and resolution, and in the truth-telling majesty of Beijing Coma – his epic novel of the Tiananmen Square massacre and its aftermath, right up the building of the Olympic Stadium on land snatched from thousands of evicted citizens – Ma looks to me like a true successor to the author of Cancer Ward and The First Circle.
In death, everyone bows to Solzhenitsyn. In life, especially through the long ice age when the Soviet empire felt eternal and immutable, many "realists" dismissed him as a moralising windbag who refused the cosy comforts of détente. Likewise, Ma has picked up tut-tutting reviews from power-mad intellectuals who basically tell him to shut up, stop banging on about human dignity and democratic rights, and join in the cheers for the new Asian century. When we wake up from the trance that has led millions of dupes or chancers to surrender to the Beijing regime, a few thinkers and artists will have the right to judge the, mostly spineless, Western record on China. Ma Jian will be one of them.
Posthumous acts of reverence do Solzhenitsyn and his heirs no good. If you want to salute his memory, read some good books by free spirits. From China, read Ma and the many other translated writers – Jiang Rong, Xinran Xue, Gao Xingjiang, Zhu Wen and Xiaolu Guo among them – who in wildly divergent ways keep Chinese literature alive in this weird era of free-market Leninism. Then, of course, read the bushy unclubbable prophet himself, above all if you never have before (though we urgently need a uniform paperback edition).
If his titanic human and historical dramas grip you as they did me, then the wide steppe of Russian fiction inspired by the Revolution and its consequences spreads out ahead. Increasingly, the greatest books from this period exist in updated English versions. Yale, for instance, has just re-published White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov's scintillating novel of his own family's experience in Kiev in 1918, as the waves of revolution and counter-revolution broke around them. Marian Schwartz's swift and thrilling new translation (£16.99) reads wonderfully well.
In the famous, ambiguous finale of White Guard, an armoured train of the future Bolshevik regime waits at Kiev station. Above it stands the "vibrant red star" of Mars itself. In spite of the smog of commerce and showbiz, that red star of Party command still hangs over the Beijing stadium today, 90 years later. From Bulgakov through Solzhenitsyn to Ma Jian, fearless writers have never stopped gazing at it with a clear eye and a free mind. We need their visions more than ever.Reuse content