Way back in 1972, I overheard a kid in my junior high – a strange kid, not really friendly, someone who even at the tender age of eleven or twelve reminded me of my grumpy grandfather – describe the movie, Cabaret, as “pure pornography.”
(photo from Wikipedia)
Naturally, I resolved to see it that weekend.
I was especially curious because the movie was rated PG and though I’d seen the trailer for it a few times, including the clip showing Liza Minelli lying back on a bed saying, “Doesn’t my body drive you wild with desire?” nothing at all about the trailer drove me wild with desire. How could it? It was a musical.
Yet I went all the same and when it was finally over, I left the theater intuiting somehow that the whole point of it had sailed clear over my head. In fact, it wasn’t until years later when I read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories which inspired the movie Cabaret that I realized that Michael York’s character was gay, and that the movie was a glitzy glimpse at a “debauched” subculture that was about to get trampled by the encroaching Nazis. (Sorry if in this day and age that somehow turns out to be a spoiler for anyone.)
(photo from my copy of the book)
Because, dim-witted kid that I was, I was so caught up in sitting in the dark with my popcorn, waiting for all the naughty, juicy stuff, that I missed pretty much everything.
Still feeling a bit burned about having wasted three whole dollars on the stupid movie, I made a beeline for that uptight puritan of a kid when I saw him in school the following Monday. But as I closed in, I realized that to him (and, no doubt, his parents) the movie was pure pornography. It just probably wasn’t to anyone else, least of all me.
Context, I realized then in the most fundamental but unarticulated way, is key.
* * *
Serving as a kind of ironic promotional blurb on the back cover of Yan Lianke’s novel, Serve the People, is an excerpt from a report issued by the Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau, banning the book itself:
This novel slanders Mao Zedong, the Army, and is overflowing with sex…. Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it, or report on it.
(photo from my copy of the book)
I’m sure the report goes on and on from there. What brought me to the book, however, wasn’t the promise of overflowing sex but another book by Yan Lianke that I’d had the previous pleasure of reading and reviewing, Lenin’s Kisses, the publication of which got Lianke kicked out of the People’s Liberation Army.
(yep, my copy)
Where Lenin’s Kisses offers an epic look at the volatile balancing act of China’s new-found economic power and clout with its Communist beliefs (in addition to being a bruising, black comedy), Serve the People, is a satirical lark, albeit one that illustrates what happens when the drudgery of a life played out as a cog within the Communist system comes into contact with the utopian experience of love as a revolutionary force.
Pure pornography ensues, right? Not so fast, comrade.
When we first meet twenty-eight-year-old, unhappily married Wu Dawang, he’s been promoted from his position as Sergeant of the Catering Squad (KP duty, basically) in the People’s Liberation Army to General Orderly (private cook and housecleaner) for the Division Commander. No longer forced to live in the barracks with his fellow soldiers, Wu is now allowed to stay in the Commander’s home. In essence, he’s been promoted from field to house slave.
Somewhere age-wise “on the wrong side of 50,” the unnamed Commander, being the steadfastly loyal party member that he is, is always busy and always away from home, leaving his lovely, unhappy, much younger wife, Liu Lian alone and “rattling around” their “Soviet-built military residence,” with no one else for company but Wu.
Take a wild guess what happens next.
At the outset, Lianke seizes every opportunity to make satirical jabs at both the straightjacketed mindset and thunderously joyless tropes of the People’s Party. For instance, when Liu spies on Wu while he works in the garden, the vines she peers through with the Commander’s telescope are “as densely fruitful as a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist study meeting.” Wu’s regular housekeeping chores are elsewhere described as “richly revolutionary.”
Unable to contain her desire any longer, Liu one evening after dinner takes a placard that reads, “Serve the People,” and places it on the dining table.
“‘Xiao Wu,’ she said, tucking the diminutive xiao in front of his surname in a casual, blandly affectionate kind of way, ‘whenever this sign’s not in its usual place, it means I need you upstairs for something.’”
Being your basic dupe, Wu has no idea at first what she’s getting at, never suspecting what she could really mean. But eventually, with some “pressure” from Liu, he figures it out.
* * *
The phrase “Serve the People” is taken from an actual speech delivered by Mao in 1944 in which he both addressed the importance of cultivating the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the greater good of the party while eulogizing a soldier who died in service to the People’s Army. Like many Communist Party slogans, it’s an important one to its members, and possessing a true understanding of its meaning is central to maintaining and proving one’s commitment to the cause.
In this exchange from the book, Wu is grilled on what’s expected of him and what he must always keep in the forefront of his mind.
“‘What is it you must always remember’ the Head of Management had asked, ‘when you start to work for the Commander?’
‘Don’t ask what I shouldn’t ask, don’t do what I shouldn’t do, don’t say what I shouldn’t say,’ he replied.
‘To serve the Division Commander is to Serve the People.’
‘More important even than that,’ the Head of Management added, ‘you must mean what you say, unite theory with practice, and make sure your actions speak as loudly as your words.’
‘Please reassure the Commander that I will speak as I think, and act as I speak, that I will be both Red and Expert.’”
Though Lianke has a bit of fun pointing out the ridiculousness of all the slogans, he also makes it clear that they’re really nothing to joke about.
* * *
Once the affair begins, the phrase “Serve the People” takes on an entirely new if obvious charge. As if to accommodate this change, Lianke’s voice, which opens the book in a broad satirical mode, modulates to a more direct and sensual one as he details the brief and doomed florescence of Wu and Liu’s fling. The sex he describes is neither graphic nor blatantly sensational or even particularly overflowing (at least to the decadent sensibilities of this running dog of capitalism), but I did feel it bore the occasional taint of an all too familiar, idealized, male-dominant sex fantasy – something that seems to be sadly universal, east or west.
What did stand out for me – and what I’m guessing really infuriated the censors of the book – was the three-day blow-out Lianke stages in which Wu and Liu lock themselves in the Commander’s house and challenge each other to see who’s truly the most counter-revolutionary. Between bouts of fighting and “serving the people,” Wu and Liu storm through the place, tearing up and defacing posters of Chairman Mao, destroying banners with party slogans printed on them, even taking two mugs “emblazoned with Mao quotations and portraits,” and throwing them into the bidet.
Within the context of such a controlling and punitive culture, this is radical material in every sense of the word and, reading that section, I could only imagine what is must have felt like for Lianke to actually put that scenario on the page and then push to get it published. Clearly he must have known that he was going to run into trouble for it – and yet he did it anyway.
How liberating it must have felt to ask what he shouldn’t ask, do what he shouldn’t do, and say what he shouldn’t say. And yet, what other choice did he have if he wanted to continue to live with himself?
Where love/lust is a revolutionary force for Wu and Liu, it would seem that intolerance of political hypocrisy and oppression serves as that force for Lianke. He’s a rebel.
Do yourself a favor, pick up one of his books, and read him.
(photo of Yan Lianke from Time Out Shanghai)