THE CORPSE WALKER by Liao Yiwu (Random House Canada), 320 pages, $28 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Deeply moving and highly rereadable, the 27 interviews here do a lot more than put a face on starvation, oppression and corruption in contemporary China. Each subject’s detailed, powerfully emotional account reveals a unique personality. Taken together, they create a worm’s-eye view of Chinese life from Mao’s 1949 revolution to the present.
Liao Yiwu deliberately sought out people at the absolute bottom of Chinese society, pariahs because of their jobs, families or some political fall from grace. Because Liao spent four years in prison for writing the poem Massacre, about the Tiananmen Square slaughter, he was able to get them to open up.
One man talks about eating clay because there was nothing else. Another explains how eating human flesh eases the terrible constipation brought on by eating clay. Both men were victims of a government program that brought on massive crop failure.
The catalogue of senseless horrors is immense. On every other page, people find themselves scapegoated for any reason or none, as though the government’s only aim were to hold power by spreading chaos.
From the customs and trade secrets of corpse-walking, the job of carrying the dead on foot to the place of burial, through the ins and outs of local politics and the perils of being a monk, Liao’s interviewees cover a broad range of facets of day-to-day life in China.
Liao works to makes his narrators into good storytellers, and arranges the material to produce a chronological account of Chinese society.
Whether you’re interested in China or not, these stories of inviduals struggling to maintain a sense of self and connection with others in a hostile world have a profound universality.