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Review: The Dark Road, By Ma Jian (trs Flora Drew)

One child good, two ... a nightmare

Set in rural China, notionally about a decade ago, Ma Jian's compelling but distinctly uncomfortable new novel presents a hellish depiction of the human impact of China's one child policy.

Kongzi is a peasant schoolteacher, proud of his direct lineage back to the great Confucius. His dutiful young bride Meili soon produces a daughter but Kongzi, obsessed by his perceived duty to sire a male heir, penetrates her nightly until she conceives again. Brief exultation is routed by panic when the Family Planning squad raids their village, rounding women up and tethering them like cattle, forcibly sterilising and aborting with a sickening zeal. Meili and Kongzi abandon their home to flee down the Yangtze, becoming criminal outcasts to protect their unborn but illegal son.

The Dark Road is the opposite of a picaresque; rather than lurching from escapade to adventure, Kongzi and Meili are forced into an itinerant, marginal existence, preyed on by local officials and thieves. Eventually they float into Heaven Township, where the local industry – extracting minerals from electronic waste – has turned the entire landscape into a toxic, Bruegel-esque vision of hell.

Ma's relentless plot is impelled by Meili's hard, irreducible anger at the cultural injustices oppressing her. Kongzi's nightly sexual persistence is merely irritating compared to the possibility of discovery by Family Planning zealots. But the most malevolent character emerging from this dark novel is the monstrous, tentacular Chinese state authority – brutal, corrupt and swaggering, manifested in upstart officials abetted by willing informers.

Ma chews over some meaty issues, from prejudicial class laws to women's lack of autonomy over their own bodies, but the narrative's exhausting flow of grievous misfortune eventually leads to a deadening of the emotional palette. Child trafficking, rape, murder, abduction, forced labour, even infant cannibalism – the ordeals gradually glaze into a disengaged sense of calamity with only a minimal sense of grief. Beijing Coma, Ma's previous novel, was a trenchant critique of the Tiananmen Square massacre distilled through the memory of a wounded protester. With its cumulative distress and odd surreal interludes, it's less clear where historical naturalism might segue into political allegory in The Dark Road, which, despite the pungency of its content, feels less sharp as a result.