Monday, August 20, 2012
China Mountain Zhang may seem like nine first-person short stories connected only, or mainly, by the eponymous hero whose narrative begins, ends, and alternates with those of four other characters (two of whom on Mars are rather remotely connected). There is a tenth story, however, "Protection," appearing in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine [right], that was not included. Protection is a Reform Through Labor camp. Recall that it was partly to escape just such a camp in Xinjiang that Zhang's lover Hintao commits suicide. The RTL as depicted in this story is somewhat milder than the one suggested in Xinjiang. As it well should. It's located after all in backward America. Hegemons such as China (we know from history, as well as our own life experience) are always anxious about the loosening of their moral fiber.
The narrator in this short story is Janee, a scrappy, smart, street kid in for larceny and assault. When a somewhat older "Political" prisoner named Paul is brutalized by the camp authorities, Janee takes a liking to him owing to his initial show of resistance. She takes him under her "protection" which is a very good deal for him since he'd otherwise have been a mark for every other prisoner in the camp. But Paul can offer something to Janee, a wider world of education and experience. Her experience in the camp is something of a race between her evolving political consciousness due to Paul versus the grinding labor and conditioning of camp routine. Quilt-making, in its most piecemeal aspects, is the labor that leads to "reform" in camp Protection. As in every story in China Mountain Zhang that work is described in detail and is an ultimate in alienation of labor. The race goes not to the swift and the finish line is prefigured some centuries earlier in 1984.
Why wasn't "Protection" included in CMZ? A connection with Zhang would have been easy enough to concoct. Paul is not just a political prisoner. He's a former high-school teacher who has written an incriminating letter to a former male student. Paul comes from Cleveland but he could equally as well have come from Brooklyn and have crossed paths with Zhang somewhere there, e.g. San-xiang's political study group. The reason not to have included the short story, I think (other perhaps than a publisher's concern for a tidier, i.e. shorter, book), is that Reform Through Labor, since it's a central motive in the novel's central episode, is best kept menacingly vague. Any depiction no matter how horrific would have detracted from the Hintao story.