Friday, September 21, 2012

Red dust of illusion

Ma Jian's Red Dust A Path Through China brought back all those painful and cruel memories of being slapped hard on the cheeks.  Every sensation has vanished save for this loud and piercing ringing in one's ears.  And with this sweet numbness on your face came a growing awareness of one's mortality.  Pain as a precursor to that eternal sleep.

From his own sordid existence in Beijing during the early 1980s - with a looming divorce, his girlfriend's infidelity, a failing custody battle for his daughter, and a prison term for nurturing a critical mindset - Red Dust went on to chronicle Ma Jian's pilgrimage through the country's most diverse and dangerous regions.  The book thus turns into a bristling record of his encounters with interesting landscapes and people along the way.  These included the dubious characters who were out to get his camera, or turn him over to those pesky Red Guards (for deserting his factory collective in the capital).  That whole episode when Ma Jian had to pretend to be one of the robbers, get both of them tipsy, and then bash their heads with beer bottles seemed like scenes straight from pinoy action movies.  Also unforgettable were those crazy sojourns through the desert - circling a misty lake, visiting cliff dwellers, etc. - with no provisions, just the faint hope of finding another lost soul in that barren wilderness.

Surreal moments of such serene and measured intensity dot Red Dust's pages.  Consider for example that chance meeting with what turned out later to be a gold prospector (yup, a rugged individualist type, much like those from a Kerouac novel, right at the heart of communist China) slumped under a rock outcropping near a dried riverbed.  Ma Jian was trying to find his way then to this enigmatic Buddhist site (with its thousand Buddha sculptures) nestled in the middle of nowhere - one person in search of material wealth; the other after a spiritual rebirth.  At one point, a tingling fear of being mistaken for another prospector, and thus a possible competitor in the business, crossed Ma Jian's mind.  So, the two parted ways with not much of a word being exchanged between them.  Just this lingering tension.  Quite like those uncomfortable silences that one usually finds in a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez movie.

Lessons from Ma Jian's Red Dust: So, you want to write another travel book that's destined to be a classic?  You should be ready to hit that road with wild abandon - no destination in mind, but simply the excitement of life wasting away in that movement from one point to another.  And with really little purpose, but just to record what you see, hear, taste, feel, think, and do.  Time to let go of all efforts to gain control, establish order, or get at the heart of things - all illusory.  Time to embrace dark chaos and the wild unknown, find comfort and meaning in them.  And if you're really lucky, perhaps kill a buddha or two.  

One of these days ...

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