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Travel classic: Red Dust: A Path Through China

Travel classic: Red Dust: A Path Through China

Writer Irwin Allan Sealy finds the narrative of Ma Jian--s Red Dust (2002) --supple and sure-- while 'a painter--s eye make the matter live'.

Irwin Allan Sealy
November 04 , 2014
01 Min Read

Three travelogues have whiled away this monsoon. The best has been Ma Jian’s Red Dust, just the ticket as the house next door is knocked down. The travels it chronicles are thirty years gone, but the dust rises up afresh because Ma Jian’s road was often actually walked. Three years’ adventures could pall in the telling but the narrative is supple and sure: shifts of tense, much talk, and a painter’s eye make the matter live. The damp socks dangling from his pack stink, the beer bottle he brings down on a thief’s head hurts. And political danger helps: no tang, and no goad, like tyranny. WH Hudson’s The Purple Land and Kerouac’s On the Road, which sandwiched Red Dust on my bedside table this past month, suffered by comparison: the one Victorian and orotund and lying, the other truthful but flatulent. Ma Jian’s book lacks the swagger and spate of both. (Is there something to envy in the natural compression of Chinese characters?) The book is so crisply rendered by his English wife you wonder if anything was gained in translation.

Brick dust creeps through the holes in the black tarp as I read, but it could be Gobi Desert sand.

What sledgehammers?

Irwin Allan Sealy is an award-winning writer whose latest book is The Small Wild Goose Pagoda: An Almanack


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