Stick Out Your Tongue
slim volume, (only 90 pages) written by Chinese author Ma Jian in 1985, has
various critiques on the back cover, ranging between “Harsh, humane,
completely effective” to “Mesmerizing… enchanting” and “Horrific and
beautiful”. It was this combination of antonyms that made me take this
publication from the Bookazine shelves to review.
It was published last year by Vintage Books, London, ISBN 978-0-099-48133-1,
after translation by Flora Dew 2006, and despite the quirky title, there is
nothing that can prepare you for the prose between the covers. It is one of
the most powerful pieces of prose that you will come across.
It details the wanderings of a Chinese writer who travels to Tibet in his
own cathartic attempts to free himself from his own pained psyche. Tibetan
Buddhism is explored, and the relationship between the peoples in Tibet and
their professed religion take on a new meaning. Forget the prayer wheels,
there is much more which is primitive and primeval.
Ma Jian was looking to find himself during his travels, but did not. “My
idyll of a simple life lived close to nature was broken when I realized how
dehumanizing extreme hardship can be.” The word to note is ‘dehumanizing’.
The life being lived by some of the people is not one having high human
ideals. Very far from it, altogether.
Ma Jian gives the reader five vignettes of Tibetan life, each one a
stand-alone chapter, but rather than make this an easily picked up and put
down publication, the sheer horror of it all compels the reader to continue
on to the next chapter, and the next. The chapter that covers the sky burial
is enough to turn the reader’s stomach, as a human corpse is butchered and
left to be carrion for the vultures and crows.
At B. 395 it is a hefty price for 90 pages, but an inexpensive, in depth
look at another culture that will leave you wondering about the differences
between mankind and the animals, all cloaked and given a veneer of
respectability as it encompasses religious practices. Ma Jian in the
Afterword states, “My hope of gaining some sort of religious revelation also
came to nothing. Tibet was a land whose spiritual heart had been ripped
I think the practices dealt with in Ma Jian’s book are but one step away
from cannibalism, and almost equally as horrific. “Horrific and beautiful”
does not really fit this book, though the horrific items are described using
beautifully penned language. But the items themselves could in no way be
thought of as “beautiful”. What is, in our minds, the desecration of corpses
is difficult to take on board with our Western upbringing and values, but
sky burials are a fact of life (and death) in some areas of the world, as is
I found this a most disturbing book, with my reading of yet another atrocity
being akin to literary masochism. It is not a book for young adults, who
should not have their humanitarian hopes cruelly dashed. It requires a more
mature and experienced mind to accept Ma Jian’s writing.