Prisoner of conscience

MY BODHI TREE by Zhang Xianliang trs Martha Avery, Secker pounds 12
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The abasement, absurdity and horror of prison-camp life have been memorably documented by such writers as Primo Levi and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. We are familiar, too, with the idea of a remote but tentacular autocratic power crushing the individual with its self-serving, remorseless logic: Orwell's Big Brother is common currency.

The Chinese author Zhang Xianliang, who spent 22 years in prison camps, acknowledges the body of literature to which his work is an impressively searching addition. A writer of fiction and poetry, Zhang has chosen simply to annotate his prison diaries, allowing him to combine the immediacy of his original notes with illuminating anecdotes, explication and self- scrutiny. His apologies for the "raw words" of his original, and for his resistance to the literary devices at his disposal, are needless. Zhang is clearly a skilful writer who cannot but use his craft: his appalling revelations are finely judged and his plain speaking has a potency difficult to achieve.

My Bodhi Tree, sequel to the acclaimed Grass Soup, covers the last months of 1960, when Mao's Great Leap Forward had pitched China into a famine that was to kill 30 million people. Zhang portrays this period as one in which a traditional faith in authority made people into accepting prisoners who earnestly attempted the prescribed "thought reform". We are allowed to enjoy the comedy of this innocence before facing the tragedy of its loss.

The diaries are written in taut, exhausted sentences. They record hard labour and desperate hunger, but also petty power struggles and vendettas as the convicts zealously root out "negative attitudes" and "thought mistakes". In language ominously of our time, each work-group has to come up with a "Performance Guarantee". With its bumbling cadres and crumbling walls, the prison camp is run on such talk. Even those, like Zhang himself, who play the system with timely denunciations and sycophantic poems remain susceptible to belief. Despite his own brutal treatment, Zhang is shocked by the cynicism of a new young convict, indifferently picking his nose while faced with a barrage of criticism supposed to induce terror and shame.

The camp's authorities depend upon compliance and tradition but also upon hunger. Conditions outside are so bad that prisoners who have served their term elect to stay as "free convicts". Zhang escapes but returns a month later, knowing he would not otherwise survive. Everyone is driven by a desperate search for food. Zhang, like his fellows, will manoeuvre for a dying man's leftovers or race to claim his meal before the authorities realise he has gone. Soup is searched for a blade of grass or globule of flour, wheat chaff replaces rice, and the convicts turn to anything that grows or moves - rats, frogs, even body lice. People starve, or are killed by what they are driven to eat. The official conclusion is, of course, that they died of eating too much of the wrong foods.

Bureaucratic inefficiency (Zhang points out that the Chinese would find Soviet-style files a compliment) is shored up by obsessive measurement. There are quotas for ground to be dug, weight to be carried and distance to be walked. Sleeping space is regulated at 50 cm, then 40, then 30 cm. As the famine takes hold, the camp lapses into an absurd state of denial. The crops fail, convicts drop dead in the fields where the weak simply lie down. These men are the means of production and, official logic again, the fact that they are still going to work means something must be being produced.

Zhang's confessed nostalgia for this harrowing time shows his sense of enormous individual and national loss. He remembers it as a period of transition, of persistent hopeless decency, before the more efficiently implemented terrors of the Cultural Revolution. Of all who died, he says, the saddest were those whose bodies gave out before their characters. Those who survived often became cynics or zealots. No wonder Zhang admired the convict who stole food, carried out an utterly sincere "self-criticism" and then went out to steal again.