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The Cave Man is a hair-raising account “in fictional form” of Xiaoda Xiao’s imprisonment, of his “forced labor in a Mao Prison Labor Reform Camp” from 1971-1978. In a brief author’s note, Xiao states of the situation, “The camp held several thousands of prisoners, and about half of them had been charged with counterrevolutionary crimes: for listening to foreign radio broadcastings, or spreading political rumors against the central committee of the communist party, or writing anticommunist diaries, or, like myself, for having accidentally torn a poster of Mao.”
The cave referred to in Xiao’s title is the tiny space his main character, Ja Feng, is confined to during solitary confinement: “three feet wide, four and a half long, and four and a half feet high.” Solid walls, with two holes—one in the iron door for food and another in the floor for excrement. The cell is full of mosquitoes. Most of the time Ja Feng is “coiled in the dark cave like a fetus in its mother’s womb.” The one possibility of contact with other prisoners is by reaching through the hole in the door and touching the hands of the men on either side of him—that tiny bit of human contact with someone else undergoing the same dehumanizing confinement.Sometimes, these prisoners pass notes to one another, written on bits of toilet paper.
Ja Feng’s solitary confinement is for nine months and then, quite abruptly with little explanation, he’s released, able to return to Shanghai where he lived before his incarceration. What Ja Feng quickly discovers is that life after prison is another kind of imprisonment: that debilitating (physically and psychologically) the entire ordeal has been. He has a sister and even a girlfriend from the past, but they have little understanding about the horrors that he’s experienced. Because he cries out in his sleep, he’s afraid to stay with his sister’s family. Quite revealingly, he constructs a small hut next to her house roughly the side of his cell: “He [had] concluded that his body had established a kind of sensory ability that would give him peace only when he was in a tightly fit space.”
With women, Ja Feng discovers that he is temporarily impotent. After one embarrassing night with a woman he thought he might marry, he decides to leave Shanghai and start over again in Mongolia where for a time he supports himself by importing the more stylish Shanghai clothing. Ex-prisoners constantly reappear in his life and make it difficult to be accepted by others in any new employment. His past continues to terrorize him. Even after he returns to Shanghai and gets a good job as an architect (the field of his earlier training) his co-workers treat at him apprehensively when they learn of his years in prison. He’s isolated, treated as if he is insane, and eventually carted off to a mental institution.
Released from the mental hospital, he becomes an artist, a painter, quite by accident. Talking to other artists he boasts that he could paint better than they if given the chance. Thus is a burst of creativity, married to the neuroses of his past, Ja Feng becomes a remarkable artist, so successful that it isn’t long before he is wealthy. Then still again, the past controls his current activities. People begin to talk about him as if he is mad, an obsessed artist. Finally, an American friend helps Ja Fang gain entry into a fine arts program in a university in the United States.
At this juncture in the novel, everything appears to be predictable, largely because Xiaoda Xiao—like his central character—fled to the United States in order to start his life once again. Fortunately, Xiao is too gifted a writer to have his main character slip into the trap of the expected. Thus, in a totally surprising conclusion to the novel, the story takes a dramatic twist that is shocking and unforgettable. But that’s territory I cannot enter here. It would be a disservice to the writer. Rather, let me conclude by saying that Xiao’s literary ancestors include Kafka and Solzhenitsyn.
One final note. The Cave Man was written in English by a writer as accomplished as anyone for whom English is the primary language.
The Cave Man
By Xiaoda Xiao
Two Dollar Radio, 184 pp., $15.50
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.