Ma Jian's short stories appear in English 19 years after being denounced as "spiritual pollution" in his native China. Stick Out Your Tongue resumes where Red Dust, his exceptional memoir exploring China's cultural fringes, left off. He had sought spiritual clarity in Tibet but found a besieged people living in unrecognisable poverty. These traveller's tales were written in a state of inspired abjection back in Beijing, just before he fled into exile.
In an afterword, Ma describes the Tibetan people as "outsiders in their own home", adding that being Han Chinese, he had "no right" to be there. However, Ma was already a beatnik fugitive in his own land.
These exquisite, earthy stories explore the peculiar overlap between Ma's apparently unrelated "outsiders". An ageing pilgrim reveals why he gave everything away in a Buddhist penance before walking into the mountains to die. Another old man tells an altitude-frazzled narrator the complex story behind the ruin of a celebrated monastery. A similarly half-mystical story details the sensual awakenings and related death of a teenage initiate "nun". Throughout, glimpses of nomadic customs and settlement rituals hint at the interiors of a very foreign culture. Ma writes brilliantly of the profound solitariness of Tibet's remote desert regions and mountainous plateaux, but is equally sure with perverse or perilous interiors. His head is often full of female intimacies, like "the warm smell inside their bras". Elsewhere, he finds himself inside a fetid tent being brought round by a hatful of fresh yak's blood.
The key to these breezy yet brittle stories is Ma's insistence on the human limits and frankly degrading realities of Tibetan life. He draws us into stories with mythical contours by his fascinated and complicit immersion in the characters' internal world. Ma's Tibetans are all-too-human "desiring machines"; his stories sketch multi-generational incest, routine sexual abuse and ritual rape. His writing hums with longings and shrieks, while his ambivalence is unadulterated. The effect is to make events with an almost anthropological distance so urgently real that they make you gasp. This is how Ma transports us to places and times we're unlikely to experience, and why these narratives are winning. He remains a seeker, despite concluding: "I know now that no path is solitary, we all tread across other people's beginnings and ends." Stick Out Your Tongue is part of a very notable body of work.