The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian (1991, trans. from Chinese 2004 by Flora Drew) is the 3rd work I have read for Jeannie's Chinese Challenge. The Challenges runs from Sept 1, 2009 to Sept 1, 2010.
The Noodle Maker is set China, in the 1980s. It begins with two old friendly enemies having dinner together as they often do. One is a writer of articles for the government about heroic workers giving their lives to save pigs on state farms. The other is a professional blood donor who has found a way to become wealthy and have a big social standing by donating his blood. (How this can happen is just part of the wonderful twisted humor of this book.) The writer dreams of one day giving up his party propaganda work and writing the great novel he has been working on in his mind for years. The blood donor tells him he is a delusional fool and should just try to write more and better stories about heroic workers who would rather work themselves to death than miss their factory production quotas. After the opening chapter in which the two lead characters have a meal and solve the problems of China, the book develops into a set of very loosely related tales (each could stand on its own a short story) that are ideas for the book the writer hopes to write one day. The blood donor feels free to but in at times telling the writer how stupid his stories are.
There are eight stories. The first one sort of explains how the blood donor got rich during the period of the open door policy. The second one is an insane story about a mother and her 35 year old son who run a for profit crematorium where much care is devoted to considering what songs to play while your love one is burned. The son tells us all about dead bodies in China, what days certain types of people die on etc. He is always happy to see a party official come in as it is time for some well deserved revenge on the oppressor. He has observations on all the people brought in, sort of summing up their lives in a few words, grave yard humor at it best or worst. (If you are a young attractive female I would not go here for cremation).
One of the stories is about a once beautiful actress (women are very much valued based on the appeal of their bodies in the world of The Noodle Maker ) who decides to kill herself by having a tiger eat her on stage. The owner of the venue sees nothing odd about this and is maybe interested in allowing her to do it but then agrees when she offers to have sex with him, if he feels like it. There is nobody with a healthy self image in this world.
One chapter "Let the Mirror Be the Judge" is a viciously nasty look at the reaction of the women in a small all female office to a new twenty year old coworker with what seem to be ideal breasts. The character of women is somehow reflected in the size and shape of their breasts in common folk views. Large round breast signify a virtuous wife and a good mother. Medium size means the woman is suitable as a mistress.
A woman with small breasts is normally the most intelligent sort. The other women hate the new employee with perfect breasts as soon as they see her. When she leaves the office they speculate about her breasts. The office manager, a totally loveless 51 year old, says her breasts are large because she has allowed many men to fondle them. (This is presented as assumed to be true by all common sense.) Some of the women insist she must make use of a breast pump, another speculates that she had implants. All of them assume the woman, who has never had any sort of romantic encounter in her life, is very promiscuous and freely tell everyone who knows her this. One of the women pretends to be her friend then asks her to let her see her breasts. The woman is driven to despair by this and begins to take sleeping pills. One take she decides to prove to everyone that her breasts are real by running naked through the streets. Her and her family end up disgraced and they move to the country side. She ends up married years later to a farm worker, still never having had the first romantic episode in her life. The farmer finds about her old reputation and assumes he has been tricked into marrying a woman with a very bad past and beats her for the rest of her life. This is presented as if it were a simple narration of normal events and attitudes.
No one in this book is spared. Nobody comes off looking good. Men are sexual predators and women are all one step above prostitutes. This is not presented as if it were a bad thing, it simply life in China. Every body is envious of anything someone else has and takes joy in the misfortunes of others. If someone out ranks you, suck up to them until they are out of power then suck up to whoever takes their place. If someone is below you, exploit them as much as you can. Personal relationships are power struggles not partnerships. Life is a macabre joke so grab all the pleasure you can.
The Noodle Maker is a very funny book. It invokes a nasty twisted kind of laughter. I thought to myself, these things should not be treated as jokes then I wanted to get onto the next joke.