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FICTION: Lest We Forget

The Cave Man
Xiaoda Xiao
Two Dollar Radio, 2009

China, however vilified in the West, whether by the media or human rights organizations, has become an undeniable player on the world stage. This is especially true in matters of economics. And even though we have recently observed the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, where students raised a collected voice only to be summarily silenced, we seem to have a short memory. We are quick to overlook offenses both large and small in exchange for the purchase of more Treasury notes. As June 4th came and went with marked silence from China, we were reminded that it is the victors who write history. But sometimes the survivors of oppression are able to speak up, to slip in a story or two of their own. The Cave Man by Xiaoda Xiao is one of those stories.

To read The Cave Man is to enter into a world that Xiao knows intimately. Between the years of 1971-1978, he performed forced labor in a Mao Prison Reform Camp. The camp held thousands of inmates charged with counterrevolutionary crimes such as listening to foreign radio broadcasts, spreading rumors against the government, or keeping anticommunist diaries. Xiao’s nefarious crime: accidentally tearing a poster of Mao. Like Xiao, the novel’s protagonist is also falsely accused. Ja Feng is arrested on suspicion of belonging to a counterrevolutionary group. He is sentenced to eight years and shipped off to a labor camp, leaving behind a mother and a sister, not to mention a pregnant fiancée.

The novel opens with Ja Feng in solitary confinement, the sun beating down on the three-foot wide iron box in which he is kept. He has heard government officials lecture many times that “one became a criminal because one didn’t know who he was.” Ja Feng wonders if he is indeed still himself and, for that matter, if he is still human: “it is obvious that the purpose of solitary confinement is…to make a person feel that he is no longer a human being.” His isolation lasts nine months (a somewhat obvious gestation period). During this incarceration, Ja Feng is forced to reexamine his basic needs and emotions, what it means to be human, and that from which he must emerge anew and reenter first the general prison population, and second the greater Chinese society.

The story follows Ja Feng as he is released from his iron box. His fellow prisoners view his skeletal figure and nighttime screaming fits with disdain and want nothing to do with him. Once out of prison, he fares no better. He tries to seek out a normal existence, tries to reestablish bonds with his sister and his onetime fiancée. They are all failures. His fiancée is now married and unwilling to tell her daughter of her real father; his sister’s son is scared of him and her husband looks at him with contempt. The novel is a series of crushing, but inevitable, ups and downs. They are the trials of a man who having once gained any semblance of success, has it directly taken away.

The Cave Man is not an easy book to forget. Xiao tells his story in a quiet narrative voice that often finds itself extremely close to Ja Feng’s thoughts. The book never becomes preachy, nor does it slide toward polemic. Instead, the details and spartan prose produce images that convey all the argument necessary.

In this work of history dressed up as fiction, events that happen in the prison camps are often mirrored by those in the outside world. After taking a job as an assistant architect, Ja Feng is locked in a small office on orders of the firm’s chief because he had learned of the chief’s affair with another woman employee. This is just another instance of how China as a whole is depicted as a prison, a place where the violations of basic human rights are too numerous to describe. The Cave Man is a heartbreaking story of the struggle of an individual trying to assimilate back into a society that should welcome his willingness to conform, but instead forces him again and again back into isolation.


Brock Kingsley


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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