For those who can't read Chinese, following the dissident writings of Liao Yiwu is like studying some ancient Greek author whose work survives only in fragments. You know he's unique but you can't be certain you're getting the best parts and you're always left hungry for more.
A 45-year-old poet and journalist in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, Liao has been in trouble with the authorities for 15 years but nevertheless maintains a devoted audience in China. In 1990 his long poem about the Tiananmen Square killings circulated in manuscript and on a cassette. The authorities tolerated that but didn't like the sound of the film he started working on, to be called The Massacre. They sent him to prison for four years.
Ever since, the thought police have harassed him, sometimes arresting him, sometimes seizing whole editions of his books. In prison he learned to play the flute but when he tries to work as a musician the police manage to get in his way. They also steal his manuscripts and at one point confiscated his wife's computer, on which she transcribes his handwritten material and transmits it to the web.
He keeps writing, however. Why? "I am trying to overcome, little by little, the fear that's been inflicted on me. I do so to preserve my sanity and inner freedom." He sounds like Chekhov, who said his upbringing made him so servile that he had to spend years squeezing the slave out of himself.
The quotation from Liao appears in the handsome new issue of The Paris Review, which has a new editor, Philip Gourevitch, and its first redesign since George Plimpton and some of his friends founded it in 1953.
Plimpton invented the modern literary interview, which has since been copied by thousands of publications, from Playboy to the tiniest college quarterly. Liao also uses interviews, so it's appropriate that Gourevitch's first issue carries translations of three pieces from Liao's Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society.
That, of course, has been banned, because Beijing doesn't want to believe the class system persists. But Liao knows that vast areas of China are desperately poor and apparently fated to be poor forever. One of Liao's foreign supporters and translators, a Vancouver-born journalist named Michael Day, says Liao depicts the most enduring of all Chinese traditions, "the tradition of using and abusing the mass of Chinese humanity for the benefit of a small ruling class." That's the Chinese way, under Mao, Chiang Kai-shek or the first Qin Emperor 2,200 years ago.
Liao seeks out the details of everyday Chinese life by talking with the poor, not all of whom are admirable. He introduces to his readers a professional mourner, a Falun Gong practitioner, a safe cracker, a blind poet, a pimp, a man who runs a public toilet and many others.
We learn from Liao that public lavatories, a necessity in towns where many houses lack even outdoor toilets, have lately been privatized. The owner, usually the same man who ran the place under the government, operates under municipal licence and earns his living, such as it is, by collecting fees from the public.
A 70-year-old interviewee, Grandpa Zhou, recalls that in the Cultural Revolution many professors were assigned to clean toilets. Zhou was told by the Red Guard to stay home, collect his pay and relax. Bored, he would sometimes secretly visit his toilets "to coach the professors on their technique." Some professors hung themselves in the toilet stalls but he has no pity: "People thought it was tragic whenever a professor died while cleaning a toilet. But I was born a toilet cleaner. If I have a sad life, nobody gives a damn."
Liao, like Oriana Fallaci, often inserts his own abrasive views. In a prison in Chongqing he interviews a convict, awaiting sentence, who lived by tricking women into becoming brides in the desperately poor north-western regions, where women are in short supply. Liao asks how he can talk women into anything, looking as ugly as he does. The man says he's learned to be charming and now could lure a goddess down from heaven to marry a human. Liao says, "If I were the judge I would start by cutting off your tongue." The convicted man admits that might be a good idea.
Liao's work takes us to a China rarely visited, a backward, downtrodden, isolated place where some of the people are as obnoxious as the government.