Ma Jian's sixth novel is not for the faint- or lighthearted. Its subject - as much as any novel has a subject - is China's one-child policy: its purpose, its effects and, most stomach-churningly, its enforcement by the authorities. There are violent raids, sterilisation, abortions (including of eight-month-old fetuses), economic inducements to inform on "illegal" pregnant mothers, and a constant barrage of grisly government propaganda.
Ma Jian has always been the most viscerally sensual writer - fixated on the body's relationship to mind, feeling and the outside world. His last novel, Beijing Coma, was an extraordinary depiction of the Tiananmen Square massacre narrated by a comatose victim, whose only direct engagement with the present moment was through smell, taste, touch and hearing.
The Dark Road shows that Ma Jian has lost none of his sensory acuity, only now there is something rotten in Guangdong province. One woman, Yuanyuan, reeks of "rotten cabbage" because she is concealing her eight-month pregnancy by hiding in a neighbour's vegetable hut. Meili, our central female protagonist, fears she is pregnant because "her breasts feel heavy and tender and she can detect a sour taste in her mouth".
It is not all despair, or not quite. Sailing down the Yangtze, Meili feels "a breeze blowing across the river [which] smells of spring earth and new growth". But, poignantly, this is a novel where it is the hope that kills you. The Gui River "stinks", in part because of pollution (near Dixian, acid rain corrodes the metal on boats), but also because of the proliferation of dead bodies floating in it.
Meili and her husband, Kongzi, encounter a "corpse fisher" who offers this odiferous description of his profession: "When they come across a patch that smells particularly bad, or has flies hovering above it, they plunge their hooked poles into it, hoping to pull up a body." Asked if they ever find dead babies, the corpse fisher snorts: "Huh! More dead babies wash up here than dead fish! But no families ever come looking for them, so the body fishers leave them to rot on the bank."
The plot of The Dark Road is loose and winding. As the action begins, Meili is pregnant for the second time - illegally, as her daughter, Nannan, is only two years old. She witnesses Fang, her pregnant neighbour in her rural village, being dragged off for enforced sterilisation by family planning officers, which serves as a prelude to a more severe crackdown. Kongzi is viewed as a leader by his fellow villagers: not only is he the local schoolmaster, he is a 76th-generation descendent of Confucius. But after a night spent in a vain protest against the authorities, Kongzi decides to run for his family's life - first hitting the road, and later the Yangtze in search of a safe harbour.
There is something of the fable in the couple's peripatetic wandering. Brief, hallucinatory encounters with strangers. Visionary sights and regular snatches of Confucian verse. Rumours of a near-mythical village - Heaven Township in Guangdong - where families are left in peace by family planning police. This being Ma Jian, however, we quickly learn the grim reason that women don't fall pregnant there: "The town's air contains chemicals which kill men's sperm."
The odd, unsettling atmosphere is enhanced by Ma Jian's ambitious narrative technique. Each chapter begins with a summary that reduces the main plot points, locations and images to "keywords". These read like odd, symbolist poems: "bamboo bird cage, the wise in water, housewife, safe refuge, wild duck, floating happiness." A riskier innovation is to narrate the action from the point of view of Meili and Kongzi's unborn spirit baby. This lends pathos to many sections: not least when the voice falls silent after Meili loses a baby or has a child removed. But at other times it acts as a somewhat crude narrative device, enabling Ma Jian himself to skip from one scene to another.
The central narrative tension derives from Meili's various pregnancies. These place her family in danger thanks to the government's one-child policy, which the reader keeps hearing is central to China's continued economic development. Ma Jian exposes the dark heart of this political imperative in the novel's most upsetting and disturbing scene (which is saying something). Having been caught at last by the family planning police, Meili is restrained and has her eight-month-old baby dragged from her womb. She then watches the doctor strangle it. If this is not tragically ironic enough, we then learn Meili has borne Kongzi the son he so desperately wanted.
This scene - which elevates personal gothic nightmares such as Rosemary's Baby onto a national scale - expresses the evident political rage of the author. Yet Ma Jian is too good and humane a novelist to allow his anger to be merely myopic. He turns his laser-sighted gaze onto Kongzi, whose love for his family is subverted by the near-misogynistic undertow of his liberal Confucian philosophy. He may rage against the government's brutal enforcement of the one-child law, but it doesn't stop him cajoling Meili into bearing him the male heir his ancestor demands.
For her part, Meili loves her children, but is compelled (through her husband and his nation) to view pregnancy as reckless and a restriction on her individual freedom. In a typically astute detail, Ma Jian portrays her as distinctly more successful when it comes to entrepreneurially finding money to put food on the family table.
Equating Meili's body with the Chinese body politic also enables Ma Jian to launch powerful broadsides about gender, freedom, patriarchy, history, economics and the way government can intrude upon even the most intimate areas of personal liberty: "Have you no idea how dangerous this country is? If you're unlucky enough to have been born with a c***, you'll be monitored wherever you go. Men control our vaginas; the state controls our wombs. You can try to lock up your body, but the government still owns the key. That's just women's fate." It is, Ma Jian notes, also a man's fate, if he is a poor vagrant worker. Kongzi's descent from schoolteacher to manual labourer - from mind to body - ends in a physical hell where he donates his own blood to support his desperate wife and child.
Scenes like this are typical of Ma Jian's unflinching purpose, which is not to say that the novel doesn't possess weaknesses. Calling Meili's aborted child "Happiness" felt emotionally manipulative. It is a rare lapse in a bleak but powerful novel that draws disquieting connections between family, the environment and China's future as a nation state.
As the Kong family progress down the Yangtze, they see villages about to be drowned by the Three Gorges Dam, witness suicides at every turn, glimpse Chinese sturgeon on the brink of extinction and those dead babies, women and children lining the riverbanks. It is, Ma Jian seems to say, as if China itself is an endangered species feeding upon itself, such is its appetite for money and self-interest.
This brave, unremitting novel offers little hope save the love that endures between people and within families, no matter how hard to sustain. The rest is up to us.