The Cave Man
by Xiaoda Xiao
Two Dollar Radio, 2009, 184 pp.
Xiaoda Xiao’s novel, The Cave Man, invites comparison to two of Franz Kafka’s most powerful works: The Trial (1925) and The Metamorphosis (1915). In the former, Josef K. is arrested by an all-powerful authority on dubious charges and, after being churned through a laughably absurd judicial system, is sentenced to prison. In the latter, Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to find that he has been transformed into a grotesque insect. He is forced to accept his monstrous transformation and remain in hiding, a choice that leads to alienation from his family and, ultimately, to his sickly demise.
The Cave Man echoes the absurdity of the unseen, powerful bureaucracy found in The Trial and the feelings of helpless alienation to be found in The Metamorphosis, except the agonies of these tales are not played out in Prague and what is now the Czech Republic; rather, the miseries unfold in Shanghai and along Chinese frontiers.
Moreover, Xiao’s fiction is not imagined out of whole cloth; it is based on the real-life experiences of him and his friends. Xiao was arrested in 1971 for accidentally tearing a poster of Chairman Mao. He was sentenced as a “counterrevolutionary” and spent five years in prison and then two more in a labor camp. Those years shaped not only the rest of his life; they impacted his writing as well. For insight into what it’s like to be chewed up and spit out by the Chinese penitentiary system, The Cave Man is an intriguing guide.
The Cave Man opens with Ja Feng holed up in a three-foot by four-foot solitary confinement cell. It’s less a cell, though, and more a stony urn where people are doomed to suffer and disintegrate, both physically and mentally. “Often at night he made the decision to kill himself in the morning,” the narrator tells us, “but he would give up when the morning came, changing his mind as the daylight broke into the cell, realizing that there was nothing with which he could do it. He had heard people committing suicide by crashing their heads against walls. He could not even do that because the walls were too close.” Ja Feng is in prison for what appears to be a minor infraction, a case of greater stupidity than any real crime against the Communist state.
Soon enough, though, Ja Feng is released from prison where he must re-acquaint himself with a society that seems unmindful of his presence and uncaring of the suffering he experienced in prison. The Cave Man follows Ja Feng’s journey as he attempts to reconcile with his family and friends and obtain work. Along the way he seeks answers as to why he was made to suffer such cruel injustices, and he attempts to quell his newfound existential angst. Ja Feng wants only to be normal again, but Chinese cultural and societal forces conspire to ensure his path is not easy.
Sadly, The Cave Man devotes only the first chapter to Ja Feng’s time in prison. His experience within the larger prison camp and within a solitary confinement cell provide two fantastic opportunities for the author to convey the physical torment and mental anguish of such experiences, both in solitary confinement and amongst the general prison population. An obvious parallel is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), which describes the powers undergirding the oppression and survival of a single day in a Soviet labor camp. Xiao’s book tempts the reader into thinking that a Chinese equivalent of Solzhenitsyn’s extraordinary novel has arrived. Instead, Ja Feng comes to the end of his prison term at the beginning of the book, laying the mental foundation for his trials to come in society ahead. Nevertheless, Xiao’s forthcoming memoir, The Visiting Suit (Two Dollar Radio, November, 2010), promises to fill this desire. According to the publisher’s website, the book will chronicle the “hardships facing a denizen of one of Mao's forced labor camps from the moment he is arrested, to his release.”
Ultimately, Xiao’s survival tale illuminates a man attempting to overcome the odds of not what occurs in prison, but what happens after one leaves its guarded walls. The focus that Solzhenitsyn applied to Ivan Denisovich inside prison becomes a focus applied to Ja Feng as a free man. The same anxiety that Kafka used to underpin Samsa-the-insect and keep him hidden is given a twist, accompanying Ja Feng as he ventures outside his prison complex.
After Ja Feng’s release, The Cave Man becomes a very disconnected story, albeit in an oddly compelling way. Ja Feng’s journey takes us from prison to Shanghai to inner-Mongolia and back, from the role of democratic agitator to man with a love interest to a traveling salesman to an artist. We glimpse myriad points of emotional highs and lows in between. The chapter centered on Mongolia stands out, however, for its unusual setting and activity. On a whim, Ja Feng, who cannot seem to settle into a rhythm in life, decides he will travel to the fantastical lands of inner-Mongolia. After one trip he devises a scheme to purchase clothes in Shanghai and re-sell them in the hinterlands to a people clamoring for a taste of urban threads and trends. The short-lived adventure is enchanting (and worth a novel itself). On one return trip to the town of Horse and Camel Fair, the scene is tantalizing:
He had to take a new sweater from his bundle to put on before walking out to the square which, to his bewilderment, looked totally different than it had a few days before. There were camels, horses, and mules everywhere, standing with their owners and waiting for their turn to go to the center of the square where an animal dealer appraised them one by one. Through a loudspeaker hanging over a cement pole, horses’ ages and prices were shouted. One could also hear sounds of horns and drums coming from a huge tent at the opposite side of the square. Large black characters on the side of the tent read: Shilingrad Circus. Muslims wearing rimless white caps squatted along the curb outside the railway station, puffing their long pipes and chatting; children played games with reins and whips; food vendors struck the rims of their frying pots with iron slicers. The smell of roasted sheep was floating in the air.
Although Ja Feng seeks redemption or salvation, or at least a second chance on life, he is thwarted time and again by an uncaring society dominated by a faceless bureaucracy. His enemies and obstacles seem so large and vague they are formless. His life becomes one marked by frustration and punctuated by absurdity. At one point he falls out of favor with an employer and is subsequently taken by force to a hospital, where his fate rests on the admittance of a lie:
The warden then asked Ja Feng if he knew why he was there. Ja Feng replied that it was because he had offended the chief of his institute [his employer].
Obviously the young warden didn’t quite believe what Ja Feng said, but he turned to the other two inmates.
“Listen,” he declared, “you guys should learn something from him to be able to convince the judge of your insanity.”
“I’m not insane,” Ja Feng loudly protested.
“Did you hear what he said?” the young warden said. “A real madman always denies his madness.
Kafka would agree.
China, Prison Writing