Harper: The Snakes by Sadie Jones

China Dream

China Dream is a deeply felt satire of modern-day China under President Xi Jinping by Ma Jian, whose works have been banned in his home country ever since the release of his first book decades ago. Ma Jian takes aim at Xi's "China Dream of national rejuvenation" for attempting to replace dark memories of the Communist Party's reign with "rabid consumerism" and "inflated nationalism." His protagonist is Ma Daode, director of the China Dream Bureau. In one of the novel's occasional fantastical touches, Ma is preoccupied with the creation of a neural implant called "the China Dream Device," which he plans on first inserting into his own head so that "any dream from my past still lingering there will vanish into thin air." Ma is in urgent need of that device because memories that he would rather suppress have begun to surface, forcing him to reckon with his--and the nation's--violent, disturbing past.

In the foreword, Ma Jian writes that "in evil dictatorships, most people are both oppressor and oppressed." His portrait of Ma Daode is similarly multifaceted, invoking ridicule and sympathy in equal measure. The book contains somewhat magical concepts like the China Dream Device, but they are often hard to distinguish from the real-life absurdities that emerge under totalitarian systems. Perhaps most absurd, Ma Jian seems to suggest, is the government's attempts to bury a past filled with so many skeletons. There will always be people like Ma Daode who remember even what they'd rather forget. --Hank Stephenson, bookseller, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.