Ma Yuan’s Tibetan Stories: Apostrophizing the Catastrophe*
Steven J. Venturino
April 6, 2012: aprofessorintheory.com
* This paper was originally written for the seminar, “The Catastrophe of Contact: Surviving the Endless Aftermath in Indigenous Communities around the World,” organized by Brenda Machosky, University of Hawai’i West O’ahu. The panel was part of the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), held at Brown University, March 2012.
The title of this essay refers to a certain way of responding to the “catastrophe” of China’s presence in Tibet. If you consider that the word catastrophe is directly derived from the Greek words for “turning over,” then it’s another sort of turning and troping that I’m interested in pursuing. It is the “turning away” of the apostrophe, or as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the “figure of speech, by which a speaker or writer suddenly stops in his discourse, and turns to address pointedly some person or thing, either present or absent.”
I want to suggest that Ma Yuan’s stories often turn aside from a direct discussion between any two entities, including “China” and “Tibet,” to address the many subtle, complex, and overlapping voices contained within each of the two “sides.”
In this way, I’d like to explore how some of the defining characteristics of Ma’s fiction—discontinuous and intersecting plots, playfully self-conscious multiple narrators, and the sudden appearance and disappearance of characters—illustrate why a simplified dramatization of the colonial conversation will not suffice to reflect either the cultural reality of Tibet in the 1980s or the psychological nuances of the writer’s own experiences. Ma depicts the contact between Chinese and Tibetan cultures as a matter of friendship, distrust, misunderstanding, fear, romance, and curiosity, but also of storytelling, language, memory, photography, and dizzying intertextuality, since these apostrophes or asides indicate the features of art that are essential aspects of the reality Ma inhabits.
Ma Yuan is a Chinese writer probably best known for writing about Tibet, although he also wrote fiction set elsewhere. He was born in northeast China in 1953, sent to work in a factory and in the country during the Cultural Revolution, and eventually graduated from Liaoning University in 1983. After graduation, Ma moved to Lhasa, where he lived for eight years, worked with Tibetan Radio, and began to write fiction. He published novels and stories in the mid to late eighties, then moved in new directions as a screenwriter, essayist, and teacher.
Ma Yuan’s fiction, which I highly recommend, offers the simple yet detailed observations of Hemingway, the humor and poignancy of Salinger, the stylistic coherence of Woolf, and the playfully serious formal irony of Borges or Cortázar—and it was vitally important to the busy Chinese literary scene of the 1980s. The middle of that decade has been identified with the predominance of what has been called “roots-seeking” literature, in which writers ambivalently sought to wrestle an authentic and modern Chinese identity from the nation’s turbulent past and its present effects.
Root-seeking literature was followed by “avant-garde” writing, with its suspicion of history and culture and its seemingly “purposeless” narrators. For writers of this type of literature, any “new Chinese identity” cannot simply be imagined or willed into being from the past, because subjectivity itself has been transformed by the complications and contradictions of modern history. Storytelling, therefore, becomes part of any identity, not simply a means of representing an identity that’s already present. Narrators and characters are not content to simply rely on “representation” to tell their stories, but self-consciously exploit the techniques and conventions of literature in order to expose the constructed nature of “real life.”
For Ma, roots-seeking and avant-garde literature come together in the colonial context of China’s presence in Tibet. I would say this is in line with other examples of colonial writing in which questions of cultural heritage merge with critiques of identity. Consider Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kipling’s Kim, Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or Coetzee’s Foe as examples. All feature characters who experience confusion in their identities, and their uncertainties are intimately linked to the forms their stories take. Ma’s experiences as a Chinese man in Lhasa—and his imagination as a writer—reflect the colonial encounter on a very human and individually psychological level, as well as any metaphorical levels that readers would identify. Ma’s stories develop new forms for articulating a human consciousness emerging, for good as well as for ill, in a colonial context.
And yet, of course, these are not the direct accounts of a colonized people or culture, but of the colonial resident “outsider” who recognizes that writing about his interactions in “China’s Tibet” sets in motion any number of powerful metaphors, stereotypes, and prejudices. The American writer, Toni Morrison, has speculated on what it means for a white author to create black characters, concluding that, “As a writer reading, I came to realize the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive, an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity” (17).
Ma’s fiction suggests a similar kind of revelation. The truth of the Tibet in his Tibetan stories is the truth of a writer’s fabrication and of his own self-knowledge, which is, according to the stories’ own logic, the only meaningful kind of truth. It all comes down to Ma demonstrating how misleading it would be to answer questions like, “What did I just see?” or “What just happened?” with only “facts.”
Which leads to my interest in apostrophes and asides. Ma recognizes that a conversation, or a story, never takes place exclusively between two distinct sides. His stories give voice to the “other person in the room,” whether that person is an actual person, or, more often, a memory, a tradition, a legal demand, a cherished dream of the future, or a logical step that’s otherwise being ignored in the discussion. This links Ma’s work to that of Kafka or the French writer, Maurice Blanchot, for example, who dramatize the difficulties in the task of “telling your story straight.”
For these writers, it’s simply not possible to “tell only what happened” in a purely factual way, or restrict your conversation to two sides, since questions are always loaded with expected responses, and there’s always someone else in the room, literally or figuratively. Also, like Ma, these writers create worlds in which political allegories do not overshadow a sensitive focus on individual character development.
In several of the stories included in Ma’s recently translated collection, we can see how, either at the level of plot or of theme, Ma explores the colonial engagement by “turning away” from two issues in dialogue in order to address the other features haunting the discussion. In “The Black Road” this takes the form of a critique of the ownership of one’s own story. The narrator begins by telling us, “Nobody is more prone to fantasy than the eyewitness to a murder. That’s why somebody with the luck I’ve had usually gives inconsistent testimony, until at last they turn their whole statement inside out” (26).
He explains that the difficulty of giving testimony comes from not being able to restrict your story to simply the teller and the tale, but that the role of the listener—even if this listener is the teller of his own tale at a later date—affects the very reality of events: “The facts are never real. From firm faith to wavering belief, then on to delirium, then to groundless fabrication. First you disbelieve your eyes, then you start to disbelieve yourself” (26). Throughout this detective story, the narrator illustrates not simply the one-to-one relationship or conversation between a person and his experiences, but the real-life challenges of being called to account, or being called to recount, his experience to someone else.
In the symbolic terms of the China-Tibet political context, the story suggests the complications of a sympathetic colonial figure serving as the “eyewitness to a murder,” when, as the narrator explains at one point, “as far as the police are concerned this murder never happened” (26). On the interrelated level of the narrator’s developing consciousness, the story tracks the complicated path from experience to narrative. “Inconsistent testimony” is a charge leveled against those who can’t seem to keep their stories straight, yet this story explores how the “inconsistencies” emerge from at least two sources.
First, there is the use that others make of one’s story, the interpretations that others impose on the events as told. Blanchot’s “The Madness of the Day” (“La folie du jour”) is another example of this type. Second, there is the deceptively simple recognition that events mean one thing when experienced and another when remembered or described. Julio Cortázar’s “Blow-Up” (“Las Babas del Diablo”) offers another example of this, featuring a photographer who confronts entirely new feelings when he revisits a picture in detail—and in hindsight.
The plot of Ma’s story, “Vagabond Spirit,” involves characters interested in historical coins. We are immediately invited to see the world of the story as one in which there are “two sides to every coin,” and in fact the most important coin in the story features Chinese characters on one side and Tibetan script on the other. This seems like a perfectly clear metaphor for a bicultural situation in which one side cannot exist without the other, but then the story complicates things by insistently following the rest of the logic behind the obvious “two sides.”
The story’s first structural apostrophe is the characters’ recognition that obtaining a steel mold for making “new” ancient coins would allow then to produce endless works of value. This reminder that coins do not simply appear, with their two sides joined, out of the blue, but must be made, extends Ma’s brilliantly detailed use of metaphoric detail into the means of cultural construction.
The story’s second apostrophe is the plot’s insistence that the value of a coin is not dependent entirely on the coin itself, or even in its single exchange between two people, but in its participation in a system over which any two participants have very limited control. It’s the system that primarily determines what something—a coin, a story, historical memory, a tradition, a work of art—can be exchanged for.
Another of Ma’s stories, “The Numismatologist,” also features coin collecting as a plot device. To the narrator and characters in the story, coins serve as coins, to be sure, but they also explicitly serve as images of storytelling itself, as the main character recognizes that “each coin has a tale of its own” and tries to exploit the values added to objects, people, and stories as they come to be viewed as exotic, rare, or special—in other words, as they come to be treated as money in circulation.
In the long and wonderfully complicated story, “The Spell of the Gangdise Mountains,” apostrophes erupt in the multiple narrators and plots. The story begins with direct address by an as-yet-unnamed narrator to a yet-to-be-named character, shifts to a second-person narrative, shifts back to the previous narrator, and moves through several more hand-offs to other narrators, including one who doesn’t speak. The story also examines concerns and events ranging from hunting and Tibetan sky burials to an “abominable snowman” and one character’s fixation on owning a truck.
What makes the apostrophic nature of the story so appropriate is that thematically the story centers on the power of stories to structure our lives. “The Spell of the Gangdise Mountains” plays with the expectation that readers (Chinese and otherwise) will see the “world view” of Tibetans as inherently mythical, spiritual, and distinct from their own, when the truth is that all cultures rely on myth of some sort in order to identify itself. The story suggests that so-called modern, even putatively materialist societies like China, depend on a dimension of myth that they typically willfully ignore.
Another interesting structural apostrophe in this story is the detour from the claim “my experiences make me what I am” to the recognition that identity is significantly shaped by things we do not always register as direct experiences. The story presents, for example, characters whose lives and memories are shaped by the stories told by others, and these stories, no matter how outlandish (the pun is intentional), become personal experiences. Two of the characters are even named for the ideas of “action” and “knowledge,” only to be deconstructed as figures unable to maintain either symbolic identity on their own.
Ma’s stories seek, among other things, to highlight what is often missing from depictions of identity and consciousness in colonial encounters, rather like the term “apostrophe” in its other chief meaning, which is the indication of an omission—the missing letter. I would also suggest, borrowing the terms of this seminar, that Ma’s fiction performs an approach to the survival that follows “the endless aftermath in indigenous communities.” Ma shows that contact can be seen—and closely read—as a matter of textuality, and that surviving contact with alien textuality is a matter of surviving with textuality, a move that Ma shares with those he references, from Plato to Borges to Hemingway.
Ma’s image of the villain-hero of Tibetan colonialism, colonialism’s true power, is a kind of conversation. Restricting conversation only to the two preferred, approved, or traditional sides plays into the epistemological catastrophe set in motion by colonialism.
To conclude with another dip into the dictionary, I would even liken the colonial “aftermath” in Ma’s stories to the term’s literal meaning, the “second crop or new growth of grass . . . after the first has been mown or harvested” (OED). Surviving means continuing to grow, after the mowing or harvesting, the series of new crops, over and over again. The aftermath becomes a process of creating palimpsests, over-writings, like text printed on incompletely erased pages, over and over.
And as Ma’s stories highlight, each side has its indigeneity affected by the colonial contact, since each side not only has something to gain and lose from the other, but also bears within itself those hidden or ignored forces that help constitute its very identity.
These forces, which grow into integral yet subtle aspects of the aftermath and the over-writings, are the object of Ma’s analysis when fiction “stops in its discourse, and turns to address pointedly some person or thing, either present or absent.”
Ma Yuan, Ballad of the Himalayas: Stories of Tibet. Trans. Herbert J. Batt. Portland, MN: MerwinAsia, 2011.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1992.
List of Ma Yuan’s fiction available in English.
Review essay of Ballad of the Himalayas.