The Noodle Maker

Ma Jian

translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew
Chatto and Windus 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
A professional blood donor, thriving on the rewards for his labours, visits his friend the professional writer, who is unenthusiastically facing a commission to write a short novel on the theme of "Learning from Comrade Lei Feng". They eat dinner and talk, and out come the stories the writer would like to write.

These stories are both within the framing story and part of it, with the writer and the blood donor making incidental appearances within them as well as commenting on them. Ranging in length from eight pages to forty, they are dark, visceral tales of love and obsession, of violence and death, presented with a sardonic, unsparing humour. Mixing surreal and absurd elements with more straightforward storytelling, Ma Jian documents some of the less happy interactions of the Open Door policy with communist bureaucracy and morality.

A funeral crematorium operator finds a way to bring together his love for his work and his intense relationship with his mother. An abandoned actress commits public suicide to try to reach her lover. A literary editor, dominated by his more successful novelist wife, discovers strength in having affairs with hopeful writers, until he is found out and his life comes apart. A street writer who specialises in love letters becomes involved with one of the addressees. A girl has a promising career in the Cultural Propaganda Department cut short by her insecurity about her big breasts. A father's attempts to abandon his disabled daughter become a symbol of his love for her. And a talking — and subversive — dog witnesses a public rape.

The Noodle Maker is an effective collection: it is only loosely held together, but the stories work well juxtaposed. Ma Jian's material and presentation seem overdone in places, but he is never clumsy and the effect may be intentional.

December 2006

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%T The Noodle Maker
%A Ma Jian
%M Chinese
%F Drew, Flora
%I Chatto and Windus
%D 2004
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0701176059
%P 179pp